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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Forno Vecchio-Where'd the people go?

Lunch Date #4: Saturday, February 4, 2010
Got together this time on a Saturday—couldn’t do it on Friday and we were determined not to let a week go by. Just like any new regimen, be it exercise or whatever…all it takes is missing one time, that one work-out, that one class…just a break in the cycle and the glue fusing the bond will dissolve and the commitment will be broken. Why is that so? I don’t know, but it is true.
We were excited to try an Italian restaurant. Since I’ve been studying l’Italiano, I’m always eager to see if someone will “parlare” with me in Italian. Although I had been to this location many times, I had not yet tried the newest installment in what seems to be a bad luck spot for a restaurant downtown. So we were off to try Forno Vecchio www.fornovecchio.com/ 680 Main Street, eager to pay homage to our Italian heritage.   
Critique #1 Location: 5 points. Perfect downtown spot. I’m not sure why this particular location has bad restaurant karma; nothing seems to last here. I had enjoyed “Amarone”, the former real Italian installment at this site, owned by the Veronese family that tried in vain to operate a successful restaurant in America. Didn’t work out for them, but I relished going there to practice my Italian and be corrected/encouraged by Matteo, the proprietor. The location seems fine: great store front, attractive entrance, plenty of walk-by attention. No indication that I can see that would doom a restaurant to failure at this venue.

Critique #2 Ambiance: 5 points. Very American-Italian trying to look Tuscan, but the décor is pleasing (mi piace!) and tables are spread out to allow private conversation. We arrived at about 1:30 on a lovely, sunny day, with Farmers’ Market just ending and the sidewalks bustling.  We were surprised to find the place completely void of patrons. Had we missed the lunch service? We peeked our heads in, “Hello, is anyone here?” A member of the cooking staff saw us from his lookout post in the kitchen and motioned for us to enter; obviously not a good omen. I glanced across the street and saw many diners at Strizzi’s--clearly others were having lunch at that time—just not at Forno Vecchio. Sadly, I also realized it was doubtful I’d be practicing any Italian that day!
Critique #3 Menu Offering: 3 points. We wanted a light lunch—certainly not primo and secondo, so we primarily looked at the panni menu. Not many to offer. I was considering the mushroom flatbread, but discussed ideas with the server. He suggested either the salmon panino or the Pachetto Toscano as the more popular lunch items served. I chose the pachetto as it looked like an attempt to be authentic. Mom went with the roasted chicken panino. Perhaps had we gone there for dinner, we would have had a very different opinion of the menu—but our quest was for lunch (il pranzo) in Pleasanton, not dinner (la cena), so we can only critique what appealed to us on a Saturday afternoon for lunch.
Critique #4 Service: 2 points. So here we were, although devoid of dining companions, we were not daunted. But here’s where they made a big mistake. “H-e-l-l-o, where are you?” I had to suppress the urge to call out! We were the only people in there for at least 45 minutes and we felt ignored. What an opportunity to wow us—I think having a few menu samplings or a visit from the chef would have been an excellent way to convert us to followers. The food was delivered reasonably quickly, but Mom’s panino was cold.  There were grill marks on the focaccia, indicating that at some point it was hot-but when served, the bread and chicken were cold and the cheese had that once melted-but-now-solid look.  When I later asked the waiter if the panini were made earlier and then grilled when ordered, he said everything was made fresh. Not by our account. Both the tea and coffee were just warm, not hot as expected—surprising for Italians that usually have an espresso machine from which they draw the hot water. Not in this case. Perhaps typical of Italian table service, where the custom is to bring your food and then leave you alone--we didn’t see our waiter after our food was served. Couldn’t get refills on the drinks, couldn’t ask about the cold panino. The server was gone, we were alone…and not very happy. By the time we finished our meal, about 3 other tables were seated and now our sole server was busy and apologized for being the only server available. He brought the menu for “la dolce” together with the check.  The only reason we gave it a “2” and not a “1” was because when we mentioned that he failed to charge us for our beverages, he just waved it off, dismissing the charge in exchange for the problem with the cold panino. Mom thought that was nice—but I think he forgot to charge us initially and didn’t want to bother to re-ring the tab!
Critique #5 food: 3 points. The fresh focaccia and herbed olive oil brought to the table upon entry were the best part of our meal. When the food arrived, it looked great and we were excited—even took pictures of the food (a la Stephanie style) and eager to dig in. This is where it really fell apart: The pachetto was disappointing. This must be the recipe: brown some ground Italian sausage, don’t drain the grease, add cut up table grapes, wrap in puff pastry and bake. That’s it. A restaurant’s specialty should be somewhat more difficult to figure out. The pastry was good (wonder if that was made on site), but the sausage/grape combo was really greasy and tasteless. The dish could have used some veggies, onions, or something else of interest to contribute to the taste. Mom’s cold panino was disappointing. True to form, she took most of it home (honestly not an Italian thing to do) and commented later that when she warmed it up, it was much better. Both sandwiches were served with a side salad that included cranberries and almonds—that was good, despite that the greens needed their stems trimmed. I must address the presence of salad on a plate with panino—this is a huge red flag that this “Italian” food is not at all what you would be served in Italia!

Critique #6 value: 4 points. Maybe it was the Sinatra playing in the background and the lovely Tuscan color palate, but we enjoyed the ambiance and gave it consideration for the value score. It was clearly a slow day; they had cut to one server and didn't go a good job with our food or service. In our opinion they blew us off and missed an opportunity to wow us. If they had only known they were being reviewed! Looking at value, the prices and portion sizes were reasonable: $10 for each lunch. But would we go back, or recommend to a friend? Probably not for lunch. I might give them a try for dinner. Gary had dinner there once, thought the food (and service by Travis) was great. Maybe we caught a bad day? Hey, attention restaurant manager! When you have paying customers at your table, take the opportunity to plant a seed; encourage excitement that will help your business at that hard-luck location grow.

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