Cooking with wood fire has a preternatural, almost primal appeal. You could argue that as cavemen, it was our first foray into comfort food. The intense heat and smoke has the power to transform otherwise unassuming ingredients. The six-month old Fortina in Armonk, begins with this deceptively simple ethos–Italian food, cooked simply, in wood fired ovens–and elevates it with a thoughtful culinary execution and a familiar, if familial, disarming vibe.
“There is a complexity to the simplicity,” said Rob Krauss, one of Fortina’s three partners along with John Nealon and Christian Petroni, nailing what makes the restaurant’s cuisine tick. I’m fairly certain Krauss is also referring to the restaurant’s team, an extended family of sorts that works equally hard at the food as they do cultivating the culture at Fortina
More than the sum of its wood-fired parts, Fortina relies on the culinary prowess and Italian heritage of partner and Executive Chef Christian Petroni, formerly of Barcelona Greenwich, as both muse and ringleader. “My background is Italian, I grew up spending summers in Ponza. One of my favorite restaurants is Peasant. As a young cook, Frank de Carlo was an inspiration as a chef. I was intrigued by cooking in wood ovens. There is something about it that is so gratifying. It’s a beautiful thing.” Along with chef de cuisine Jodi Bernhard, formerly of Barcelona, the kitchen has the creative chops responsible for its daily printed menu.
Petroni formulated Fortina with partners John Nealon and Rob Krauss while the trio worked at Barcelona Restaurants. Nealon is responsible for cultivating the dining room’s familiar yet attentive service vibe in the dining room, while Krauss is Fortina’s marketing glue. This two actually met on the Staples High School football field and have been close friends ever since. More than a partnership, the trio seems more like a brotherhood, and this feeling translates across the restaurant’s service team and into its dining room. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the central themes of brotherhood celebrated in the movies of their favorite film director, Wes Anderson and the relationship of its partners. A portrait of Steve Zissou, the Wes Anderson character, is hung prominently in the dining room.
Fortina’s rustic hipster vibe is an amalgam of warm and cool; a white subway tiled wall, poured concrete floor, and rough-hewn wood plank walls are found throughout the restaurant. Personal touches make for great conversation pieces and help affirm that feeling of familiarity, from the portrait of Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, to a shirtless portrait of Petroni’s white-haired uncle sipping an espresso in Ponza, smoking a cigarette, seemingly without a care in the world. If Fortina was a man, he’d be this awesome man, Uncle Louie.
Half of the magic (and most of the fun) of the restaurant stems from the chemistry of this brotherhood. The rest of it rests upon two wood-fired custom Marra Forni ovens. One is used for pizzas, and the other is used for everything else. “The first thing we did is move in the ovens, we built the restaurant around the ovens,” said Petroni, underscoring the importance of these twin brick behemoths.
While it’s important to understand the motivations and the people behind Fortina, the menu speaks truth to power. It’s printed on one over-sized piece of paper, listing courses and dishes on one side and wine and cocktails on the other. On a couple of visits, I just began to scratch the surface:
Anti-pasti: Small, simple hot and cold plates that are perfect for sharing, from spicy olives, to salads, to the truly rich and special, such as a wood-roasted bone marrow. As for the must-trys, don’t miss the burrata, made up of a fettunta (charred slab of bread), a slab of creamy burrata, and cubes roasted butternut squash finished with brown butter and sweet vino cotto. The prosciutto is purposefully called up from the salumi menu bench to this part of the menu. This cured lovely is exquisitely pale and translucent with an astounding texture. It is served fittingly simply, with pears and black pepper. Well worth the splurge.
Vegetables: Petroni loves vegetables. We’re talking the whispering sweet nothings at inanimate object sort of love, which is confirmed by his arm inked with vegetables. So it’s no surprise this adoration figures prominently on the menu. At Fortina, they are treated with the same preparation and care that goes into the rest of the menu. Piled atop one another on a thin layer of walnut crema and pecorino, the baby carrots are a knockout. The roasted cauliflower has the same veiled modesty, perfectly charred florets belie a surprising hazelnut romesco, and may be one of my favorite things on the menu.
Pizza: I recommend you come here with a sports team post-practice and order at least one of each. If that plan fails, order a Luigi Bianco for yourself and call it a night. That dandy of a pizza is a trifecta of cheeses with burrata, robiolona, parmesan and finished with black truffles. This pizza really is too big for his britches, but I fall for the show-off every time.
The menu may change but some early staples have emerged: classic margherita, hungry hungry cipo (cipollini onion, provolone, tomato), #America (fried potatoes, hot dog, tomato, mozzarella), and Tenderoni (tomato, spicy soppressata, mozzarella, chili oil, and honey).
These uniquely Fortina pizza combinations benefit from a crispy crust, slightly crispier than classic neapolitan pies. The dough is “a three day situation” that relies on a slow, cold fermentation to uncover the full richness and depth of flavor of its finely ground Molino Spadoni 00 flour sourced from Italy. Petroni is quick to point out they are not pizzailolos, but the team spent about a year of due diligence to get the pizza just right.
Primi: Pastas are aplenty, with about ten available on my last visit. Fortina even manages to give some wood-fired love to this part of the menu with a wood-fired paccheri, a bechamel “a la vodka” with small veal meatballs. Classic dishes, such as spaghetti and ravioli aren’t shy about listing one of the key ingredients that make most of these dishes sing: butter. The lone pasta dish I managed to try, I can heartily recommend– a fusilli with a ragu, ricotta and chili flake treatment. The rich dish was inspired by a staff member’s favorite childhood bowl of pasta made from the leftover bits of fried meatballs.
Secondi: Five entree-sized dishes make up this shortest, but heartiest part of the menu. The pork braciole made with “sunday sauce” and broccoli rabe, pretty much says all that needs to be said here. This dish is a time intensive combination of a tomato sauce paired with slow cooked pork and herbs, the comforting flavors of many an Italian (American) youth. A wood-roasted half chicken, wild Alaskan king salmon and prime dry-age bistecca fiorentina are all prepared with wood-fire, and continue along similar uncompromising ingredient lines. These are classic Italian dishes, but Fortina elevates them with pitch perfect sourcing, and a light touch.
Dolce: If you’re in the mood for something sweet, there is a short list of a few classic Italian desserts such as a tiramisu and panna cotta, as well as a few stand-outs with their own Fortina twist. Don’t miss the semifreddo, which should really be renamed “sexy Snickers bar,” a stracciatella with burnt orange caramel, and peanuts mirrors the flavors of the candy bar, in a breathless, can’t-stop-eating sort of way.
Wine & Cocktails: The wine list is diverse, but not necessarily deep. The cocktails are classic with a twist and executed flawlessly, from the correct use of ice to their well-balanced approach to sweet and bitter. The Negroni, for example, closely resembles the classic but uses a giant ice cube infused with orange, a great ploy to cut the sometimes cloying sweetness of the vermouth.
Start with the Food, Finish with Family
There is such a thing as a restaurant sixth sense. The first time I visited Fortina, my restaurant spidey sense made me want to high five complete strangers and order the entire menu and share it with my new friends. It felt comfortable. It felt like home. “We are very serious but we have fun. Our staff really relates to us. Every day we spend 45 minutes talking about the new dishes, food philosophy, meals...we spend a lot of time trying to impart this culture which is really all about good food,” said Petroni.
Start with Italian food, cooked simply. Add wood fire, a dash of a disarming vibe. Serve and finish with friends and family.
Fortina is located at 17 Maple Avenue in Armonk. Information at http://www.fortinapizza.com/.