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Downtown Phoenix's Forno 301 Is Reminiscent of Italy's Best Cafes

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My Italian is lousy, but I know a lot of the swear words, so when I spotted cazzone as one of the specials of the day at Forno 301, my new favorite restaurant, I laughed. Cazzone means "big dick," not as in "giant penis," but more like "you're an idiot."

Forno 301, on the other hand, is very smart. The menu is small, yet full of expertly crafted dishes. The word "authentic" gets bandied about a lot these days, but Forno reminds me of every excellent cafe I've ever visited in Italy. Its service is casual and warm, its eggplant parmigiani so much like my grandmother's, and its dining room rustic and inviting.

That long, narrow room features a sleek bar running along one side, is fronted by tall windows, and ends in an open kitchen that's home to the wood-fired oven where owner and pizzaiolo Luca Gagliano turns out simple southern Italian cuisine. Out front, manager Roberto Dadone plays host, greeting each customer as a long-lost amico, taking dinner orders, and rather frequently cranking up the '70s disco tunes and dancing up and down the pavimento. Both men are from Sanremo, the Italian village where Sonny and Cher won all those music festival awards in the '60s.

Their menu is full of Italiano swagger, offering "unbelievable" tiramisu and captioned with descriptions like "Wow" and "Oh yeah," but much of this bluster turns out to be well-earned. A trio each of salads, panini, bruschetta, and house specialties are offered alongside three daily specials and a dozen different pizzas. I've eaten pretty much everything Gagliano prepares, searching high and low for something that's disappointing.

The closest I've come to disappointment at Forno (which means "oven") is the grapefruit salad, served sometimes as a daily special. Layers of tart fruit and slices of fennel tossed with mixed greens and tomatoes is perfectly serviceable but pales in comparison to the menu staple Caprese, a simple, traditional preparation of sliced tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves with a drizzle of sweet balsamic — the perfect showcase for the mellow, woody olive oil that Forno imports from Italy.

That oil is whisked with lemon and pecorino as a dressing for the "3" salad, which has consumed mia mente debole and has become the object of an irrational craving for more. Its blend of distinct flavors — the big personality of arugula, sweet slices of pear, and slivered pecorino — are perfection.

The bruschetti are all excellent, none so much as the "3", spread with Gorgonzola, fig marmalade, and prosciutto crudo and excellent with a glass of house wine — a six-buck red or white — served in a highball glass, because that's how Italians drink it.

The pasta of the day is often a ravioli. On a recent trip, these cheesy pillows were filled with ricotta and rested in a buttery broth of sage and olive oil. Decadent eggplant parmigiani also was perfect, layering tender, thin slices of eggplant, smoky mozzarella, and tomato-rich red sauce.

East Coast-style wood-fired pizza is Forno's house specialty. Because pizza is, as the saying goes, trending like mad here, 11th-hour boasting about organic tomatoes and imported flour is beginning to sound a little tired. But Gagliano's deserve a little chest-thumping; they're made-from-scratch pies featuring homemade mozzarella, fresh basil, and more of that full-bodied extra virgin olive oil, their charred, cracker-thin crusts baked at extremely high temperatures. The cafe's namesake pizza comes generously dabbed with marinara and dressed with tender onion, velvety mozzarella, and bits of fresh fungo and spicy sausage. My personal favorite, the Acciughe, is a deliciously smoky pie with a perfect cheese-to-sauce ratio topped with anchovies and tangy kalamata olives (pitted for American tastes).

My crappy Italian might have ruined that cazzone, which I couldn't resist ordering. Showing off, I asked in Italian what was in the cazzone. Dadone replied politely, also in Italian. And I, a true cazzone myself, didn't understand a word. I blurted out "Si, voglio che con peperoni." And con peperoni I got — alongside the prosciutto secco this pie is made with. It's a testament to Gagliano's skill that this warring pile of cured meat didn't overpower the creamy ricotta, the mozzarella, or the light, thin, crisp dough wrapped around them.

I hung my stupida testa in shame over a pair of desserts. The crème brûlee's lemony custard was just tart enough under a thick, hard crust of burnt sugar, and I found the Unbelievable Tiramisu very believable: Creamy and sweet, its layers of moist cake and mascarpone dusted with cocoa, it came served in a glass cube that my companion and I quickly emptied. After which, bursting with felicita, we dragged ourselves to Forno's tiny parking lot and our car, where we began counting the days until we might return.

Forno 301
301 West Roosevelt Street
480-787-5654
www.forno301.com

11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday

Number 3 salad $7
Acciughe pizza $12
Eggplant parmigiani $9
Unbelievable Tiramisu $6

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