Most families have them. Those cherished recipes passed down the generations on torn and food splattered paper with little handwritten notes in the margins of changes as years went by. That hand made feel and attention to detail is what Trattoria al Forno wishes to impart onto its dining guests, unfortunately many of those recipes were lost in translation when the Disney operated kitchen got their hands on them. It is a restaurant with identity crisis as the story it wishes to tell doesn’t fully reach into the design or the flavor palate of the menu, but there are some highlights, and you may find a visit certainly worth your time. Myself, and Tom Corless had the chance to dine there this week. Located on Disney’s Boardwalk, Trattoria al Forno officially opened its doors up to Walt Disney World guests on December 18th.
When you walk into Trattoria al Forno, you are greeted with a warm, inviting entrance area with plenty of room to sit or stand while your table is prepared. An arched brick wall has the restaurant’s logo etched upon a medallion that rests behind the greeters stand. The rest of room feels like a foyer area of a grand mansion with hardwood floors and a carpeted section with comfy chairs perched in front of a custom wine cabinet that displays authentic regional wines offered on the menu. Family photos adorn the walls. They depict the generations of Italians that built this modest tavern and boarding house on the boardwalk, into the popular restaurant that it now is.
The story of Trattoria al Forno is set up well here, but it is upon entering the dining room, where I felt the story WDI provided was a bit far reaching when compared to the actual design. The story goes: “As the restaurant was growing, boardinghouse rooms were converted into additional dining spaces. There are four distinct dining rooms, with furnishings, finishes and lighting relating to the character of each original boarding house room.” While I certainly noticed the furnishings and floors being different, I did expect a more distinct partition than brick columns between the rooms. There is a single room that is separate, as it was in the Cat Cora days, that is used as an extension of the main dining area. However, I think its a stretch to say, as Disney has, “the styling differences in each create individual dining experiences. The result is a combination of intimate and lively dining spaces with a tailored progression of storytelling.” That made me feel like I would need to dine multiple times to effectively get the experience, but this is no Be Our Guest. Heck, I would even say the Bucca di Beppo chain does a more effective job and creating partitioned and distinct dining spaces that make me want to walk around and take in the details.
I need to start off by saying, I am harsh on Italian food. I have some of those hand written generational recipes at home. I practically shun chain Italian places. And I have my favorite mom and pop joints that I frequent. But I do walk in open-minded to new menus and welcome more choices for my dining experiences. As mentioned, I dined with Tom (as some photos of our awkwardly intimate table for two that may have leaked onto the web may show) and he has seemingly a similar hard line critique of Italian cuisine.
Our server started us off with some house-made warm, crusty Ciabatta Bread. She poured some olive oil topped with freshly grated cheese for dipping. It was very good bread, but nothing special that would make you crave it upon a return trip.
The Appetizer menu has the array you would expect including salad, soup, seafood and meats. We opted for the seafood and ordered the Venetian Mussels ($11.99) and Fried Calamari ($11.99). I almost always order the Calamari when I dine at an Italian restaurant for the first time. When done well, it is one of my favorite menu items. Trattoria al Forno’s Fried Calamari was excellent. The squid itself was cooked well and was a great selection. You never know when you might get rubbery squid, this was not. I wish the breading had more pop to it, but the true flavors came in the accompanying sauce. It was a raisin based White Balsamic and Lemon Agrodolce. Normally, I enjoy my Calamari paired with a spicy marinara, so needless to say, I’ve never had anything like it… and I loved it. It was a bit tangy and a perfect complement.
The Venetian Mussels were served in a Tomato-Curry Broth with some Grilled Bread. Another excellent choice and another sauce with a flavor pallet I am not used to in an Italian eatery. The moment I scooped up this sauce inside one of the shells, the aroma struck me and I was instantly intrigued. The spice of the curry was tempered with the tomato base and created a spicy yet not overwhelming, exotic yet still Italian taste. The Mussels, like the Calamari were a good selection and cooked properly.
For our main dishes, we ordered three. We both wanted to try the entrees, but couldn’t resist giving the pizza a taste as well. Tom’s choice was easy, Chicken Breast alla Parmigiana served with Tagliatelle ($21.99). And while that may seem mundane and safe, he has his reasons. You can base a lot about an Italian restaurant on how they prepare their Chicken Parm… you get to sample the sauce, cheese, meat and pasta all in one. The chicken was a nice sized cut, pounded thin. For my taste, a bit too thin and not the best cut of chicken, but Tom was satisfied with it. The breading was much tastier than the Calamari, but where the dish fell apart was the cheese and sauce. And that is the sad fact about Trattoria al Forno. It will be a reoccurring theme in this review that the base Italian ingredients, cheese and sauce, are so incredibly underwhelming, that not much else matters.
Disney in fact touts that “Trattoria al Forno showcases Old World techniques, including handcrafted mozzarella made daily.” And “Chef Dee Foundoukis is most proud of her “Sunday gravy,” a simple tomato sauce made with tomatoes, chicken stock, fennel, herbs and a dash of red pepper flakes.” Unfortunately we both found the mozzarella and sauce to be rather bland and tasteless.
Offering some redemption was the pasta. Trattorio prides itself in the fact that it freshly prepares ingredients in-house. And that includes two of the pastas, Tagliatelle and Cavatelli. The Tagliatelle tasted perfect with a light dusting of red sauce and some parmigiana cheese.
I went with the Braised Beef Bolognese served with house-made Cavatelli ($21.99). This apparently was a fan and Cast Member favorite and it did not disappoint. It was my one and only “Wow!” moment of the night. The Braised Beef was simply spectacular. Tender and juicy, it soaked up the flavors of the red sauce that it was surely slow cooked with. And contrastingly, the red sauce, bland on other dishes, came alive with the infusion of the flavor of the beef. And the Cavatelli, freshly crafted and cooked to perfection, was a wonderful accompaniment to this savory dish.
And then… there was the pizza. The pizza menu looks amazing. The flavor combinations, for the most part, being ones that I was not familiar with. From Fennel Sausage to Broccoli Rabe to Truffle Cream to Roasted Portobello Mushroom, there is a taste for everyone… unfortunately, that taste is poor. We ordered the Smoked Prosciutto, Potato, Rosemary and Mozzarella pie ($16.99). The pizzas are served on a cutting board and placed upon a wooden riser that sits on your table and houses some small appetizer plates. The pizza itself is a little larger than your average personal pie, but I think it can be easily devoured by one. It can also be shared by two if apps and dessert are ordered. But we would not recommend wasting your time with the pizza here. What it comes back to is the sauce and mozzarella. And there is no stepping around the fact that they are awful. So when you have a slice a pizza, where those two ingredients play such a factor, the pizza suffers greatly. Granted the Prosciutto was quite tasty and the roasted potatoes were amazing, but they could not salvage the pie. The crust was extremely underwhelming too, as we both commented that certain frozen pizza offered up better crust.
The Dessert menu has a lot to offer. There is the standard Tiramisu, Bomboloni and Cannoli as well as an Affogato al Caffe (espresso with choice of hazelnut or vanilla gelato) and the clever “Spaghetti” Gelato and “Meatballs” (Vanilla gelato presented in twisting strands with Raspberry Gelato in scooped ball form). I could not resist trying the Cannoli ($6.99). Three tiny pastries were served on a plate big enough for an entire pot roast. They were each filled with half chocolate and half pistachio cream. They were very tasty, but I would have more enjoyed one large Cannoli as opposed to three tiny ones.
Tom ordered the Bomboloni – with dark chocolate, served with vanilla gelato ($6.49). They were melt in your mouth delicious pastries. The flavor of gelato was lacking, but overall, a good dessert. None of the desserts seem large enough for sharing.
I could not resist trying a couple specialty drinks through the evening. I started with an Italian Manhattan ($10.25) that consisted of Bourbon, Vermouth and Italian Bitters. It was out of this world delicious, but be warned, it may have been one of the strongest drinks I’ve ever consumed on Disney property (not a bad thing). The drink menu was loaded with Italian beers and brandies and various other cocktails. The Dessert menu also contained a few, and my attention was drawn to the espresso based drinks. They offer an espresso with a shot of brandy, but I was good for the night. They also offered a pressed pot of Italian Coffee. What really intrigued me were the three versions of Italian espresso… Northern, Central and Southern. Being a coffee fan, I had to try one. Each version offered a different flavor pallet. Some being more nutty or fruity or chocolatey than the others. I opted for the Southern version ($3.69), which is a more intense roast with a chocolatey and earthy sweetness. It was phenomenal and the perfect cap to the meal. I have a feeling you can not go wrong with any choice on the espresso menu.
Overall, Tom put it best, although he may not choose to make his own reservation and go to Trattoria al Forno in the future, he would not object if a friend was going and invited him along. I tend to look at food on a price basis and I can’t see spending $20+ per dish here when I can choose to go to one of my favorite Italian restaurants, choose a more flavorful, and to me authentic, dish and pay $7-$10 less. That said, the prices really are not bad for a Disney property restaurant. Put inside that bubble, you will get your money’s worth here.
In the end, you can’t fake authentic Italian, and I think Trattoria al Forno tries to be more than it is. It overshoots and falls short. Disney had the opportunity to add some really inventive dishes to this menu, and didn’t take the chance to do so, at least in the entrees portion. I’d go again for drinks, appetizers and desserts… but even as great as the Bolognese was (and I’d highly recommend that as your entree choice) it is not enough to pull me in on a regular basis.