Al Forno's Johanne Killeen and George Germon mine the essence of Italian food
by Ian Donnis
Johanne Killeen and George Germon
Returning to Providence in the early '70s after working in a small
family-run restaurant outside of Florence, Johanne Killeen tried to recreate
the spaghetti with cream and melty strings of Parmesan that struck her as a
revelation in Italy. But armed with a dark green container of ersatz Kraft
grated cheese, "what I came up with was gacky," she recalls, not light and
delicious. In the ensuing years, Killeen continued to experiment and search for
better ingredients until she devised the basis for baked pasta in the pink with
fresh herbs, cream and five cheeses, one of the signature dishes that would
make Al Forno an internationally known culinary mecca.
This quest for authenticity and reverence for the simple yet hearty and
elegant essence of Italian cooking defines Killeen and George Germon, the
husband-and-wife team whose restaurant put Providence on the gustatory map.
While food trends come and go, the couple has remained unswerving for two
decades in their dedication to the timeless appeal of Italian fare. When
gravity-defying stacks of so-called architectural food became the fine dining
rage of the '90s, Killeen smartly noted that their architecture is interior --
in the taste of what's on the plate.
It began on a shoestring in 1980 when Germon and Killeen, battling back after
a serious car accident, launched their dream by serving breakfast and lunch in
a small 30-seat location on Steeple Street. The name Al Forno, Italian for
"from the oven," referred not just to an inspirational mode but the fact that
their sole cooking equipment consisted of two ovens. Ploughing one day's
receipts into the next day's provisions, the couple eked out a living on the
way to building a devoted following and winning plaudits from the
International Herald Tribune as the best casual restaurant in the
As Germon and Killeen recount in their 1991 cookbook, Cucina Simpatica
(HarperCollins), many of their friends couldn't believe it when they followed
their early training in the arts -- he as a potter and sculptor, she as a
photographer -- by pursuing something as fleeting as food. "I think people
believed we were giving up art for some lesser, more trivial pursuit," the
couple wrote. But noting that the sensual enjoyment offered by food and eating
is one of life's greatest pleasures, Killeen and Germon perceived little
difference between cooking and other arts. "Food is eaten the way art is
perceived; it is digested and recorded," they noted. "Given the right
circumstances, a connection is made and communication takes place, which is
what art is all about."
The timing was propitious. While it was vexing to find even such a basic
element as basil when Germon and Killeen set up shop, the way in which many
Americans view food was transformed during the '80s as better ingredients
became available and casually sophisticated restaurants began to proliferate.
Over time, many Al Forno alumni have gone on to star elsewhere, including Ken
Oringer of Clio in Boston, Neath Pal of Neath's New American Bistro, and Loren
Falsone and Eric Moshier of Empire. And Rhode Island's capital city, once a
culinary backwater, is now hailed by Bon Appetit as "divine
"George and Johanne have to be credited with showcasing this address
nationally," says Walter Potenza, a native of Abruzzo who is the chef-owner of
La Locanda del Coccio in Federal Hill and two other restaurants. "Today, we can
compete with anybody."
For Al Forno's guiding lights, the circle is coming full. Joining the company
of past luminaries like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Killeen and Germon will
serve as scholars-in-residence when more than 1200 members of one of the two
premier US food groups, the International Association of Culinary
Professionals, converge next Thursday, March 30, for the first time in
Providence. The general theme for the IACP's five-day conference? Food and
A self-described food writer was dining at Al Forno not long ago when she sent
the bruschetta back to the kitchen because it lacked tomatoes. "I said, `Whoa,'
" recalls Killeen, who, grasping her omnipresent dictionary of Italian cuisine,
strode into the dining room to cite the definition of toasted bread rubbed with
garlic, drizzled with fresh extra virgin olive oil and no tomatoes.
While the startled customer was insulted to even be questioned, "I just wanted
to nail her," Killeen says, since the woman appointed herself an expert and
didn't know the true composition of the dish. "I was the one who was
Many chefs would say, if the customer wants tomatoes on the bruschetta, give
her tomatoes, but not at Al Forno. "The bottom line," says Germon, "is, the
customer is not always right."
And despite enhanced knowledge of food among Americans, Killeen and Germon are
griped by a number of things: the way that the taste of US-raised chicken pales
in comparison to that in Italy (bitter, rather than sweet at the bone, says
Germon) because of the gargantuan scale of domestic food production; the
depletion of fish stocks to such an extent that many new chefs will taste only
the less flavorful fish raised on a aquafarm; a diminution of originality in
cooking because of growing reliance on the Internet and dubious third-hand
information, rather than traveling to the source. Even the timing of the
culinary convention troubles Germon, who cites the absence of fresh local
produce at this time of year.
But if this kind of intense exactitude occasionally rankles some, it's also
seen by others as the key to Germon and Killeen's enduring success.
"I would describe them first of all as being incredibly passionate people,"
says Bob Burke, the owner of Pot Au Feu and a longtime friend. "I think that
colors everything they've achieved. They are fiercely loyal people to each
other, to their customers and to the culinary standards they've set for
themselves. I think that has been the key that sets them apart. Some people
don't understand how deeply they feel about running their restaurant."
Indeed, it's relatively easy for a visitor to miss the subtle complexity of
thought that has gone not just into Al Forno's food but the ambience of the
two-tiered brick-and-ivy-covered establishment. Chairs and table legs are
trimmed to approximate the more intimate scale of European restaurants; Hanging
pumpkin stems, a favored good luck token for the proprietors, are a familiar
sight to those who look about; What appears to be a wrought-iron mantle at the
back of the second-floor dining room is actually a piece of gutter that Germon
(who designed and built Al Forno's ovens and grills) molded, poured concrete
over and painted.
Whether it's the darker, warmer second-floor or the lighter, cooler
first-floor, visitors are given a sense of Italy from the moment they walk in
through a summer courtyard laden with vines. The first-floor bar, equally
well-suited for a solitary dinner or a romantic assignation, conjures a rustic
getaway with whimsical flourishes of marble and a burning fireplace on a
mid-March night. An egalitarian spirit prevails because of the absence of a
dress code or reservations. And while it's no trick for a full-fledged feast to
get costly, two people can dine well at Al Forno for under $50.
Anticipation of the meal to come causes enthusiastic throngs to line up on
Friday and Saturday nights, following the aroma of wood smoke curling along
South Main Street near the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. They come for clams Al
Forno in a garlicky tomato broth; delicious ultra-thin grilled pizzas; salads
lightly coated with lemon and olive oil; an array of toothsome grills and
roasts; and made-to-order desserts like a Sicilian ricotta tart for two or
hand-churned almond-scented toasted coconut ice cream with chocolate chunks.
It's all too easy to walk into a big-city restaurant these days and feel duped
after dropping $24 for, say, a good, but unexceptional, piece of grilled tuna.
For the same amount, Al Forno serves up a massive whole herb-scented Sardinian
roasted flounder, with roasted Swiss chard, and mashed potatoes artfully hidden
in a nest of lemony greens, that leaves a visitor with a sense of happiness and
This kind of fare has long since garnered effusive praise from countless
critics, as well as recognition for Germon and Killeen from their peers and the
James Beard Foundation as great chefs. In calling Al Forno the top casual
restaurant in the world in 1993, Patricia Wells of the Paris-based
International Herald Tribune aptly hailed "food that's honest,
forthright, ever-changing and ever-challenging. No tricks, just a search for
deep flavors and deep satisfaction."
Friends and customers sent in copies of the article from distant points of the
globe and, naturally, Germon and Killeen were thrilled. At the same time,
during a recent interview in the upstairs dining room, Germon was quick to
cite the importance of "not believing our own press, which has probably kept us
out of trouble all these years."
Growing up outside of New York City -- Germon in White Plains, New York,
and Killeen in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the future twosome was imprinted with an
early appreciation for good food. Killeen's mother, a widowed obstetrician,
hosted big holiday feasts and brought her two young daughters to some of New
York's better restaurants. As a child of 8 or 9, a major impression was made on
Germon, whose father was an enthusiastic cook, when he visited some
Russian-Czech neighbors and found them grilling meat in a fireplace by using
skewers made of twigs from the yard.
But it wasn't until Killeen and Germon ventured separately to Italy as young
adults that they fell under the spell of the clarity and freshness of Italian
cooking. "The taste was something that really knocked me over the head,"
recalls Germon, who was teaching in Rome for the Rhode Island School of Design
after attending RISD as a graduate student. The effect was the same for
Killeen, who went to Florence after graduating from RISD to continue her study
of photography. "That moment opened up a whole new world for me," she says,
describing how working at the small family-run restaurant outside of Florence
inspired her to cook.
Besides setting Killeen and Germon, who vaguely knew each other at RISD, on a
course to become better acquainted, Italy provided a winning choice for a
cuisine to become enraptured with. The precursor to Italy, after all, produced
the first printed cookbook, in 1475. And although that pioneering status faded
after the Renaissance, Alan Davidson writes in The Oxford Companion to
Food, "they have succeeded better than any other European country in
developing and spreading over most parts of the world a cuisine which has the
enormous merits of being cheerful, tasty, varied, inexpensive and unworrying .
. . all one has to do is enjoy the food, whether cooked at home or ordered in a
Pursuing their culinary interests after returning to Rhode Island, Germon and
Killeen met and fell in love in 1975 while cooking at Joe's Upstairs, near the
Providence Journal building. "I just wanted to get into his pants,"
Killeen recalls. "I was so ga-ga. After all this time, I still am." Because of
their mutual interest in art, food and Italy, "We had so many levels on which
to relate. I had never experienced that with another person."
Five years later, after a series of setbacks, the couple opened their
restaurant in the Steeple Street space now occupied by New Rivers. Working long
hours while offering savory Provencal-style pizzas and little fruit tarts,
Killeen and Germon knew they had found their calling, even if they were falling
short of breaking even. Remembering those early days, Germon says with rue
leavened by the passage of time, "The one thing they don't tell you about in an
art education is anything about economics."
Financial success came in time, and for all the intrigue associated with
Providence as a former mob capital and ongoing den of political intrigue, the
couple has only good things to say about their adopted home. "We would not be
in business if it were not for Buddy Cianci," asserts Killeen. "I dare say
there are other restaurateurs in this town who could say the same thing
[because of his] having a definite interest in food and an understanding of how
much culture revolves into food. When we were very new on the scene, he was
instrumental in helping us get a liquor license. He understood the importance
and value of having a liquor license."
The couple later opened Lucky's, a Provencal-style restaurant, at their
present location before consolidating Al Forno in the 130-seat space in 1989.
Along the way, Germon invented grilled pizza, a widely imitated dish, after
hearing his fishmonger use the wrong word to describe a baked pizza he'd had in
These days, it's common for more than 350 dinners to emerge from Al Forno's
two kitchens on a Saturday night. In 1998, although they had been reluctant to
become involved in another enterprise, Germon and Killeen assumed operation of
Cafe Louis, a small restaurant in an upscale clothing store on Boston's tony
But even long after the couple's early struggles, Big Night, the
poignant 1997 film about two Italians whose New York-area restaurant fails in
spite of their lovingly prepared food, struck too close to the bone to be a
charmed diversion. "Hated it," says Germon. Adds Killeen, "It was too true for
Al Forno is a charmed place, a destination that draws expectant guests
from near and far to a once desolate corner of a once downtrodden city. At the
same time, as anyone familiar with the trade knows, creating a successful
restaurant is extremely difficult. At some point in the future, Germon and
Killeen -- who travel to Italy a few times a year and close each day with a
freshly cooked meal at home -- plan to retire to Italy or France. But for now,
maintaining their success is another challenge in itself and the main focus of
The restaurant's kitchens, one on each floor, populated by a combined crew of
close to 30, are an orchestrated whir of activity even before dinner is in the
works. While they still devise recipes and menus, Germon and Killeen have over
the years shifted their role in the kitchen from cooking -- he focusing on the
entrees, she on the desserts -- to overseeing the preparations. For many
alumni, working at Al Forno remains a formative experience.
"It felt to me like we were actors on the stage and when 5 o'clock rolled
around, you had to know your lines and your performance or else you were going
to sink," says Loren Falsone, who, with her husband, Eric Moshier, opened
Empire in 1999 after working at Al Forno for eight years. "There was a lot of
anxiety, a lot of pressure . . . [but] no matter how busy George and Johanne
had gotten, when they were present, they were really there, really focused on
what they were doing.
"I remember Johanne being really, really diehard serious and very focused on
what their goals were. I remember one time George sat us down and said, `It's
our goal to become internationally recognized.' For me, being 21 or 22 at the
time, it was kind of overwhelming, but I always tried to really keep their
thoughts in mind."
Beyond the kitchen, there are bills to pay, suppliers to take care of, a
constant search for good staffers, and countless other quotidian demands. "We
try to make it appear to the public that things run smoothly, but this is a
business and we have problems," Killeen says. And while the trouble is doubled
with a kitchen on each floor, "We still do love it," she hastens to add.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.