Alforno Trattoria still fresh and flavorful after 25 years
After 25 years in the business, Alforno Trattoria in Old Saybrook ought to know its way around a pizza. To say that it most certainly does in an understatement, because the fantastic pies and other Italian fare coming out of the kitchen are worth celebrating every year.
I hadn’t been to Alforno’s since my last review of the place in 2011. Since that visit, Alforno has expanded its dining space and vision, and if the packed house on a Saturday at 6:30 p.m. is any indicator, the update is a winner.
On that hoppin’ Saturday, I was glad I’d ordered takeout for tasting mission one. Even the bar area, where diners-out pick up their orders, was packed.
Starting with our Arugula and Parmigiano Salad ($11; comes with two hunks of excellent Tuscan-style bread), this was a meal to savor. When sharp, slightly bitter baby arugula gets tamed by generous shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, you’ve got a nuanced dish with great texture — there’s something about the toothiness of arugula that’s particularly satisfying. We used the accompanying white balsamic vinaigrette sparingly, because the punch of flavor from the title ingredients got the job done beautifully.
But the trip to Flavortown was far from over as we dug into our two pizzas of the night, one red and one white.
The (red) Pizza Napolitano Vera ($13.95; one size only) comes with some free trivia if you happen to read Alforno’s menu description for this pie: “True Naples Original Pizza. We are certified as producers of this original 250-year-old version.”
Indeed. To officially prepare and peddle your pie as truly Napolitano, the pizza-master must adhere to strict culinary rules that originated in the old country. Per the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (Google it; it’s a thing), Pizza Napolitano must be constructed with type 00 wheat flour; water with a preferred pH of 6.7; sea salt; and “compressed solid yeast, biologically produced, soft and beige in color, with an insipid taste and low degree of acidity.” The toppings are equally specific: cold-pressed, unrefined olive oil; fresh, and only fresh, basil; oregano; certified buffalo mozzarella; grated hard cheese and, ideally, San Marzano tomatoes (there are a few other permitted varieties). That’s it.
I’ll take Alforno’s word for it that they followed the necessary protocol. How else could they produce such an outstanding, flavorful pizza? That double-zero flour is said to produce a crust that retains some chewiness and holds lots of olive oil-y flavor. Our pie accomplished that plus zero dryness despite the pie’s turn in a hell-hot oven. From the bright, tangy tomatoes to the sweet notes of basil and the creamy mozzarella, everything about our pizza was delicious. Here’s to tradition!
The Bianca ala Romana ($15.95 for a small) doesn’t have quite the pedigree as the Napolitano pizza, but that’s alright by me. With toppings like caramelized onions, European bacon, mozzarella, and fresh thyme upon another excellent crust, a pizza hardly needs a fancy certification. It is a heady, savory combination of ingredients that is among the most unique and enjoyable white pizzas I’ve ever tasted. We couldn’t pick a favorite of the night because both pizzas were so distinctly outstanding.
It was all we could do to not order more pizza on tasting mission number two, but duty called for additional exploration. This time, we dined in, settling on a cozy spot in the chic, date-night-conducive bar area. Naturally, cocktails were in order: for me, the Earl Grey Tom Collins ($11) and for the mister, a Negroni ($9). I ordered my drink, a mixture of tea-infused Broker’s London Dry Gin, Rothman and Winter Apricot Liqueur, fresh lemon juice and soda, with a request to go light on the apricot liqueur, and it arrived as ordered. I figured too much liqueur would make for too sweet a drink, but the mixologist knows of what he or she speaks, because the recommended splash of vermouth likely would have taken more bite out of the strong tea flavor of the gin. My mistake aside, I enjoyed the drink quite a bit and found it a refreshing way to toast the end of a humid day.
I cannot report on the Negroni — a blend of Broker’s London Dry Gin, Campari and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth — because I truly hate Campari, one of its signature ingredients. The mister loves the stuff and declared Alforno’s Negroni outstanding.
On that evening, several specials caught our attention, with many of them featuring seasonal ingredients. Among them was a panzanella salad ($10), a vibrant mix of fresh tomatoes, red onions, basil and cucumbers bathed in oil and vinegar and served with toasted bread. The idea is to scoop up that zesty veggie mix onto the toasts in a delightful merging of texture and flavors. Just remember to savor the greatness of in-season produce and you’ll find that $10 was well spent.
We arrived at yet another draw for best dish of the night, once again because they were both fantastic. My Arugula Chicken ($23) was another selection from the specials list, and I do hope it gains a permanent spot on the rotation. We thought the parmesan cheese did a great balancing act with arugula in our earlier tasting. Consider its pairing with a breaded and lightly fried breast of Bell and Evans chicken an excellent encore. Softened just a bit by the steamy chicken, the greens brought a mellower green flavor to the crispy chicken. One would enjoy that part of the dish alone and walk away delighted, but add excellent house-made gnocchi tossed with fresh tomatoes on the side and you’ll double your pleasure. I’ve never tasted such wonderful gnocchi, a more buttery-tasting variety than I’ve had before, with a pinch of black pepper for a little bit of pop. The chopped tomatoes added just the right touch of acidic edge to the gnocchi. It’s even better when some arugula wanders into the pile.
However, the Housemade Tagliatelle ($17.50 for a smaller portion; $22.50 for a full portion) on the regular menu is also special. The menu description is simple: “Homemade tagliatelle with our famous Bolognese sauce.” The dish itself is simply delicious. When braised meats meet with fresh, well sourced tomatoes, the result is a nuanced sauce with tender texture and smoky, then bright, flavor notes, with the meat and tomatoes combing in perfect harmony with occasional solos. Plus: fresh pasta, no matter what’s on top of it, is a wonderful thing. I can’t wait to order this dish on a wintry night.
The restaurant business is no easy affair, and it’s very clear why Alforno Trattoria has marked a quarter century of success. Smart innovation on classic cuisine served by professionals in a great setting makes for good eating and steady business. Here’s hoping the next 25 years will be just a delicious.
1654 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook
Cuisine: New Haven-style pizza and seasonally inspired authentic Italian dishes.
Atmosphere: Do not judge Alforno by its location in a defunct shopping plaza. The Alforno team celebrated its recent 25th anniversary with a remodel that added a beautiful, spacious bar area. From the lighting fixtures and art to the chairs and marble tabletops, there is much to appreciate all around you while you wait for your meal.
Prices: Despite its pizza-house claim to fame, these pies and Florentine dishes feature premium ingredients. Pizzas start at $11.95 and run up to $24.95; entrees average in the mid-$20 range; pasta dishes start at $9.95
Service: Courteous and efficient; each course arrived with just the right amount of time between. Later in the night, we had a nice chat with our server about the fabulous nature of Connecticut pizza.
Hours: Lunch served every day from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: Accepted
Handicapped access: Ample parking in a large lot that once serviced a shopping plaza. Easy access to entrance. Interior areas are spacious.
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