Upon entering Fornarelli’s Ristorante, we were told that we were going to come in as guests and leave as family.
Though we were excited at the prospect of meeting a group of people we’d never met before, the restaurant had tablecloths and chairs, which made Anya a little nervous.
“I don’t even like going to restaurants,” she admitted to Adrian. “I would always rather eat at home or in the dining hall.”
After sitting and talking about our interests for a while, we discovered that there was warm bread in the bucket on our table. We were surprised, having assumed it was an empty bucket with a napkin in it.
When the waiter tried to take away our drink menu, we said we wanted to keep it to read the descriptions, although we did not order any drinks. “Like when you buy a porn magazine to read the articles,” Adrian explained. One of the drinks was called “Extortion Money” and featured ginger beer, and we vowed to return and try it.
After we had already ordered, owner John Fornarelli graciously offered us some complimentary octopus with lemon and olive oil, which also made Anya nervous. Adrian fell in love with the dish; the octopus was perfectly chewy and contained subtle tart undertones that managed to pop without being too overwhelming.
Next, we were offered another dish: a second pre-appetizer appetizer. It was called panzerotti. We had absolutely no idea what it was going to be, and when the slab of fried dough arrived we felt a dawning, familiar sense of doom.
“It’s like when you go to your Russian relative’s house, and you think the food on the table is all there is,” Anya said. “And then you realize there’s this whole other table of food secretly waiting for you. And you know that you will never leave and that you will have to eat all of it because it’s awesome.”
The panzerotti was indeed awesome. It was like an airy calzone, filled with tomato sauce, mozzarella and capers. We could not imagine having it at home, where we are only served borscht and rice, respectively. We were also feeling alarmingly full, and the main appetizer had not yet arrived.
When we received the antipasto plate we had ordered, we were impressed with how well curated the different flavors were. A thinly cut, smoky prosciutto paired wonderfully with the three different types of cheese and the spicy, house-made, marinated peppers.
The sort of nostalgia that only came with Frank Sinatra and hearty food led us to believe that Fornarelli’s had succeeded in their promise to make us feel like family. It felt like every element of each dish came from a larger family-size dish, and they just happened to have been plopped down on our plates. It was something we’d never experienced at a nice restaurant.
Still, having ordered a filet mignon and a piece of salmon with risotto, we worried that these were not the most Italian dishes — and, while great, they were not as great as the food we had not ordered. But Adrian maintained we had done the right thing, and began to mansplain:
“A menu has to be like a basketball team. The bench has to have depth as well.”
We ordered dessert, and decided that the tiramisu, made by Fornarelli’s wife, was the best we had ever eaten. The cannoli, which was tarter than most, appealed to us as well.
Anya asked Adrian if he would take a date to Fornarelli’s. He replied wistfully, “Yeah I would. But I think it’s where I’d want to go with my husband, and we’d become regulars and friends with the owners and they would watch my kids grow up.”
When we finished our meal, Rob, our waiter, congratulated us and we felt like we had earned it. And we had: We were Italian now. Christmas carols played as we walked out.