Published April 21. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 1:02PM
You can take the gal out of New Haven, but you truly can't take the New Haven out of the gal, especially if she's eaten the local pizza.
And this gal has.
After two years' residence in New Haven, this pizza lover has become a pizza snob, and woe to any pizza-maker who can't hang like they do in the Elm City. There are many decent pretenders to that throne, and sure, one can always hit the Pepe's at Mohegan Sun for a thin-crust fix, but it's taken some research to find something like it a little closer to (my) home. And now, a local option: Alforno Trattoria in Old Saybrook, where chefs know that flavor should also live in a pizza's crust.
If you're looking for super cheesy, garlic-y, oregano-heavy, thick-handled pies, Alforno's pizzas might not appeal to you, but worry not, because the menu offers a lot more than pizza - more on that in a minute.
If you prefer pizza topped with cheese that pretty much merges with the sauce, sauce that lets the tomato flavor do the talking, with a crust that bears the slight charcoal tang of the hot oven from whence it came, then start with Alforno's menu item titled "Our Famous Pizza." This is a mellower-flavored pie that's relatively light in pizza terms, the best part of which, for me, was the crust.
For the exotic-pizza lover, choose from dozens of topping options, some basic (pepperoni, olives, mushrooms), some more gourmet (cubed eggplant, roasted chicken, veal & ricotta meatballs). White and specialty red pies are available, too.
In recent weeks, Alforno has been offering a goat cheese and prosciutto white pizza special that's as tasty as it sounds. The goat cheese is mild, mixed with just a bit of mozzarella, topped with fine shreds of prosciutto. The prosciutto could have been crisper, but the combo is still a nice alternative to a basic red pie.
But back to the non-pizza menu. Alforno recently updated its menus, and a nice new option is small-plate sizes of most of the main courses. While there's a slew of appetizers and salads to try as starters, the small plates make for a nice way to try and share more dishes. However, before you hit the main courses, consider the veal and ricotta meatballs on the appetizer menu. They are expertly prepared and offer superb flavor.
My husband and I also tried the Tuscan bean soup as an app, and while it was nicely presented and not at all unpleasant, we felt it could've benefited from a little more flavor. We'll leave it to the chefs to determine if herbs or heartier stock would do the trick.
Our main courses taught me that, next time, I should get the full portion of the delicious eggplant rigatoni, a small-plate portion I regrettably shared with my table. Flash-fried eggplant meets with tomatoes and shallots in a lovely base over thick, perfectly cooked rigatoni. We detected what might have been a balsamic vinegar undertone, or it might've just been a nice marriage of stock, shallot and eggplant. The Cannelloni Florentine - a pleasant mixture of veal, chicken, shallots and spinach in a homemade crepe - was somehow light and rich and very flavorful.
If you like a little comfort in your food, try the Baked Four Cheese Penne, but I'd recommend the small plate version of this filling dish. Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmigiana and Asiago cheeses merge to become a creamy vehicle with a crisp top for nice, firm penne.
And if you go while the crème brulee cheesecake is on the specials list, grab one. Cream cheese apparently loves a little sweetness, and so will anyone with even the slightest sweet tooth.
The common denominator in all dishes is high-quality ingredients. Chicken dishes tend to be made with Bell & Evans birds; tomatoes are San Marzanos; many pastas are house-made. All good things, but for some people, accustomed to more heavily seasoned Italian foods (like a few at my table), menus like Alforno's may seem a tad foreign. Indeed, owners Bob Zemmel and Linda Guica make it a point to visit Italy frequently and apply what they've tasted abroad back home at the restaurant.
So if you're ready to revisit the old country or redefine your conception of Italian food, stop off at Alforno, tucked away in the Benny's plaza off Route 1 in Old Saybrook.