Carciofi Saporiti e Più in Saratoga

I love artichokes. It’s one of those trigger words on a menu that helps me decide what to order, just like pancetta or carbonara. When I see artichoke, or carciofi (kahr-chee-OH-fee) in Italian, I’m smitten. They are a culinary memory trigger, reminding me of the wedding I attended in Rancho Santa Fe, CA with my parents in the early 90s, at which tuxedoed waiters passed by with silver trays of steamed artichoke leaves and little dishes of clarified butter. It was the first time I’d ever tasted these edible flowers, and it was a revelation. I’ve loved the pulpy, soft, barely citrusy and slightly sweet hearts ever since.

At Forno Bistro, in Saratoga Springs, carciofi grace several menu highlights, and oh what fantastic specimens these artichokes are. But the pleasures of Forno begin before a single morsel of food is set at your table. The place is, simply, gorgeous. In fact, what drew me to this restaurant the past few times I’ve been to Saratoga is the beautiful exterior wrought-iron fencing draped in ivy and twinkle lights. The inside didn’t disappoint: dark wood flickering in the candlelight, metal sculptures suspended from the high ceilings sporting even more candles, wine bottles soaring skyward and copper accented windows. It took me several minutes just to drink in the splendor before I could even pick an actual beverage at the bar – but I went with the Patron margarita while Melinda chose the blood orange martini. We were both immediately impressed: this place was already delivering on the promise the décor was making.

Wall o’ wine

Melinda, backdropped with twinkle lights and copper-trimmed windows at Forno

We started with one of Forno’s woodfired pizzas rather than an antipasti…and this is where the delightful carciofi first joined our lives. The ricotta e carciofi pizza was a masterpiece of thin, savory crust barely kissed with a light brush of tomato sauce, then draped with dollops of whole milk ricotta, fresh mozzarella, the sweetest roasted red pepper strips and the sublime artichoke hearts, all laced with a delicate chiffonade of fresh basil. I literally don’t know how one could improve on this pizza. But the artichokes were the stars: bright, intense but not overwhelmed with brine or oil; they were dynamite. It’s telling that a) I didn’t add any salt and b) we called the maître d’ over to question the origins of this marvelous ingredient, because we had never tasted a better example of what an artichoke should be.

Can you still hear the laaambs, Clarice?
It was an exercise in willpower that I didn’t order the special, which was linguine carbonara. But I had already pre-planned my entrée to be the brasato rustico AKA braised lamb shank with rosemary polenta. While I’m sure the carbonara would have been superb, I’m really happy I chose the lamb. It was terrific – falling off the bone, and sauced in an assertive wine/mushroom/tomato combination that was savory, sweet and just a little funky (thanks to dried porcini mushrooms, I’m guessing). I was apprehensive about the polenta, because a) I’ve had a lot of lousy, flavorless polentas served to me in restaurants over the years and b) I really hate rosemary. My apprehensions were for naught. This polenta was coarse ground, subtly scented with fresh rosemary, packed with high-quality, salty, nutty cheese and cooked down into a pleasing, dense consistency. It was like my favorite cheese grits in the south: soulful, rich, salty and substantial. They rivaled the artichokes for my favorite component of the meal. Quick! If fresh Italian artichokes and the richest pool of polenta were matched in a street fight, the artichokes armed with a paring knife and lemon juice and the polenta packing a heavy kitchen ladle and one stick of dynamite, who would win?

Melinda, after much debate between the carbonara, orecchiette with peas, porcini and prosciutto, or chicken cacciatore, chose the chicken. Despite forgetting to ask our server Todd to hold the olives, she was really happy with this dish. Its rich tomato sauce was beautifully infused with fresh mushrooms and thyme, and those extraordinary artichokes were back for a command performance, showing off like a nerd at a spelling bee.

Artichokes, showing what their mama gave ‘em

Sometime after we finished with our entrees and were considering dessert, the cute Forno head chef, Brian, emerged with a tray-shaped plate adorned with half-spheres of promising deliciousness: he wanted to answer our artichoke questions and bring us a complimentary dessert because our entrees took a bit longer to come out than he was comfortable with. I suspect the dessert had more to do with the fact that I had a notebook at the table, but alright. Turns out, they get the artichokes from Italy, not Wegmans, which is fine and dandy except how am I going to live without them in my life on a regular basis? Meanwhile, the bomba alla noccioles AKA half-spheres of peanut butter gelato with caramel centers, coated in milk chocolate, were rich and decadent. Not what I would have chosen had I ordered off the dessert menu myself (ahem, crème brulee), but perfectly perfect for free!

Bomba. Indeed.

In addition to Melinda and me weighing in with our ratings of the evening, we consulted with a lovely couple at the table next to us – we four graded Forno a 9.5 on the BHS scale, but get this: they told us the same people also own a place called Chianti, and it’s even better. I’m not really sure how you beat out a 9.5, but maybe the chef gives you a nice massage after dinner and the whole meal is free if you say thank you? In any event, we felt very well taken care of at Forno. In addition to the table visit from Brian and the maitre d’, the owner also came round to say hello, stopping at each table to enquire about his guests’ evenings. And the whole affair was remarkably affordable: dinner for two, including one round of premium cocktails, was $78. Given the exquisite ambiance, solid service (our water glasses were never empty) and those artichokes, which I think were hand-carried by baby cherubs straight from Tuscany, I’m calling it a bargain.

Not being satisfied that Forno was all a Saturday night in Saratoga had to offer, Melinda and I hit Broadway Avenue for a couple nightcaps before calling it an evening. First up, Max London’s, where I had another margarita and Melinda had a bellini. This is the brother restaurant to Mrs. London’s, which has received tons of coverage on the Food Network over the years for having epic pastries and tea. Max’s is a cool space, all industrial and modern. There was a Dorothy Parker quote about liquor up behind the bar, which I appreciated. Our barkeep was pleasant, though not engaging, and our drinks were strong. It was a slow night, and the vibe didn’t really capture us. We moved on down the street to the Grey Gelding, which is owned by folks originally from Endicott, NY! They had a fabulous band playing and hilarious middle aged men dancing around – we knew we had found a good spot to end the night. We each had a glass of sauvignon blanc and chatted up the bartender, who was super friendly. He even drew us a map of a great place to hit up for brunch, which we would have done if impending storms hadn’t ruined our Sunday! In any case, this was a fun bar: upscale, classy, with an impressive wine list and an engaging staff.

Is there a better way to end a Saturday night than laughing at men dancing with their wives?

I will say it again: Saratoga Springs is a top notch spot for a weekend getaway. We stayed at the Hampton Inn, which is located right off Broadway, and makes it easy to walk anywhere downtown. We got a great internet rate, and this hotel is really lovely. Our beds were divine in a plush, cushy, cloud-like way, and the free breakfast the next morning was plentiful. They have an indoor pool and hot tub, and free garage parking for guests. So hie thee to Saratoga, winter-weary friends! They have good things to eat, shopping, horsies, spas, friendly bartenders and more. I am telling you, if you’ve not been, you’re missing out. So get up from the computer and yell at your husband, “Honey, we haven’t had a weekend away in forever. How about Saratoga Springs? I’ll bring that black thing you like. You can bet on the horses!” Tell him he can thank me later;) My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

The Hampton Inn breakfast room

Forno Bistro on Urbanspoon

Dear pizza: I miss you. You complete me. Love always and forever, BHS

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