Our remarkably ill-conceived first dish at Formento’s was an unfortunately good predictor of what was to come. Italian-American pizzerias and restaurants have been serving pretty much the same garlic bread for decades. Slice open some bread, spread garlic butter on an exposed side, and toast it. Simple enough, and undeniably tasty. For $5, I knew Formento’s would do something to try to improve on this standard. Use especially good, fresh, house-baked bread perhaps. Maybe some kind of special organic garlic. What I didn’t think is that they would utterly reinvent the dish in a way that made it impossible to eat. Instead of cutting the loaf open and toasting it, they served a whole loaf, untoasted and scored so that the “slices” came just halfway down the loaf. Then, inexplicably, a server lifted a carafe with some kind of thick, emulsified garlic sauce and started pouring it over the top and between the crevices. I wanted to scream at him to stop, or grab the carafe from his hands. But it was too late. He had created a gooey, Cinnabon-style mess. When a manager came by to ask about our meal, I asked her how we were supposed to have eaten the garlic bread. Some people try a knife and fork, she said. Others try with their hands but fail. She didn’t really know either.
Formento’s tried to improve on eggplant parm too. The downfall of many versions of this dish is that the fried eggplant quickly becomes soggy under layers of sauce and cheese. Formento’s came up with a way to prevent that from happening: burn the hell out of the breading in the deep fryer. It stayed crispy. I’ll give them that.
Speaking of soggy, that’s the way to describe the Caesar salad at Formento’s A Caesar salad is crisp. It’s the defining principle. Formento’s used too much of the leafy green part of romaine lettuce, and way overdressed it . With plenty of whole anchovies on top, this dish was a fishy swamp. Most bizarrely, instead of serving croutons on the salad, they served a block of some kind of gooey, bread-pudding-like thing which had been pan fried or something to give it a dark color on the outside. Croutons rock on a Caesar salad, Formento’s. If you want to upgrade a Caesar salad, just make the best damned croutons in the universe. Not pudding.
The breading on the fried calamari was like beach sand. So dry and chalky. The good thing about that is that the texture made the breading easy enough to wipe away, revealing calamari that was tender and delicious. They plated it with a sauce that tasted like ketchup. Scrape off the breading, avoid the sauce, and squeeze some lemon over the top, and this was the one dish of the evening which could be rendered palatable.
The same cannot be said of the orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, which I could not stomach after 2 bites. The homemade pasta was very poorly executed. It was gummy. It was swimming in some kind of thickened, overly acidic wine sauce. What surprised me most about it though was that the presentation revealed that the kitchen does not understand what this pasta shape is about. The point of orecchiette is that the little cups are great at catching bits of stuff that form the dressing. That’s why sausage works so well, as long as it’s crumbled. Crumbled bits of sausage inside little orecchiette cups are one of life’s great joys. Formento’s decided to “update” this dish by using 2-inch-long pieces of sausage instead of the crumbled kind. With some of the other failures of the evening, I could perhaps chalk them up to growing pains of a new restaurant. This one was more disturbing though, as it showed an utter lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Italian cooking.
A day after dinner, I read this recap of a Formento’s preview dinner that my friend Mike Gebert attended. Two of the dished I had are pictured there. At the preview dinner, the garlic bread looked like normal garlic bread, and the Caesar Salad had actual croutons. Why they changed these things, I have no idea. But maybe there is some hope that they’ll go back to the old ways and get this place figured out.