Forking it over

Forcella fills a casual-Italian niche

One of the “Two for $32” Monday/Tuesday specials, featuring chicken Marsala on angel hair pasta.

One of the “Two for $32” Monday/Tuesday specials, featuring chicken Marsala on angel hair pasta.

Photo courtesy of Forcella

Forcella Italian Bistro
1600 Mangrove Ave., Ste. 175
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 5-8:30 p.m.

Dining out often isn’t so much about food as it is about entering an ethnic fantasy. And nowhere is this more true than with Italian restaurants. We aren’t looking just for marinara sauce and piccata—we’re looking for Mama Leone, with an acre of white apron stained with tomato sauce. We want Tony, with a big-a mustache, singing “This is the night, such a bee-yoo-tiful-a night …” to the strains of an accordion. We want family.

Italian restaurants come in three degrees of approximation to this ideal. The First Degree is the chain. Chico’s representative is Olive Garden. “When you’re here, you’re family,” etc. It’s all a complete hoax, of course. I went to OG once. My companion got a small bowl of something unidentifiable as a side dish to his entrée. We asked the waiter what it was. He went off to ask someone in Corporate. He came back and said no one knew what it was.

The Second Degree is the northern Italian ristorante. White table cloths, tastefully chosen wine list, big bill. Where you go for an Occasion. Excellent at being what it is—a place where food and dining are taken seriously. Not my fantasy.

The Third Degree is the trattoria. This is what my heart desires. Smaller, usually cheaper, cozier than the ristorante. The chef is typically the owner, and after two visits you’ll call him by name. “Trattoria” comes from the same root as “tractor,” literally “dragger”—a place where the food is dragged out without pretense, as it were. Until recently, Chico didn’t have one. Now it does: Forcella. (Though the owners chose the French equivalent of trattoria, calling it Forcella Italian “Bistro.”)

A historical digression: Back in the ’50s, when Americans were so terrified of ethnicity that Chinese restaurants had to advertise “Chinese-American food” to assuage customers’ fears, Chico had a real Italian trattoria: Micheletti’s. For years it stood on the corner of The Esplanade and Second Avenue, and as far as I saw, no one ever went inside. A huge man in a dirty white apron (Micheletti, I presume) stood on the front stoop waiting for customers who never came. I never found the courage to go. Signore Micheletti, io sono cattivo. Let me make amends by praising Forcella.

“Forcella” means “fork” (also “crotch,” which you would be wise to forget when you’re eating there). It isn’t perfect. It has no guy with a mustache, no accordion, no communal bowl of minestrone (the touchstone of Italian family restaurants). But it has good food; a simple, clean, pleasant ambiance; and a communal table for those who wish it.

There’s an atmosphere of playful, unpretentious bonhomie about the place. The wait staff likes to discuss the food’s merits, you can grab your own water and utensils from a side table, and there’s a glassed-off cooking area where you can watch the cooks rolling out ravioli and talk to them about what they’re doing. I’m not fond of the bread (I’d like something crustier) and the “lasagna soup” is too peppery, but otherwise the food is very good conventional Italian. For me, the star of the menu is the panna cotta for dessert ($5), a dish of sublime simplicity that Forcella absolutely knocks out of the park.

The worst thing about Forcella is the location, in one of those dreary Mangrove Avenue strip malls.

And Forcella isn’t as cheap as a traditional trattoria—on my last visit, two entrees, two glasses of wine and one dessert cost $70 out the door. There’s a sweet “Two for $32” special on Mondays and Tuesdays, though, with two full meals (including a bottle of wine), that’s well worth scheduling for.