[Sidebar] March 23 - 30, 2000

[Features]

Simple beauty

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 world.

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 Providence."

"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 art.

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 insulted."

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 well-being.

[] 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 restaurant."

[] 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 Florence.

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 Newbury Street.

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 us."

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 their attention.

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 idonnis@phx.com.

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