WILMINGTON — Five years ago, businessman Ash Aziz opened his umpteenth restaurant in Wilmington: Pizzeria Il Forno at the Pointe at Barclay. Focused on cichhettes, pasta dishes and Neapolitan-style pizza, the menu was honed by Tuscan chef Roberta Campani — former owner of La Gemma Bakery — who moved back to Italy in 2017.
Il Forno’s open kitchen, with its wood-fired oven located front and center, stopped bustling Monday. Aziz announced the casual eatery was closed.
“I think it’s been a good run,” he told Port City Daily. “I always wanted to do a pizza place, but recently I don’t feel like I’ve been able to give Il Forno the attention it deserves.”
As of late, the restaurateur has been focused on his latest fine-dining venture, Origins, which opened over the summer. Located in Autumn Hall, it just added lunch hours this week.
“There is no question Origins has been demanding a lot of my time — it’s a lot of details in service and is doing outstanding, but I have to spend more time with it,” Aziz said.
By spring, Il Forno’s trademark Italian flavors will be traded in for French pastries, sandwiches and souffles, as Josephine and Alban Pelletier of Far From France take over the 3,000-square-foot restaurant.
Alban said he and his wife discussed expanding their cafe, located two doors down from Il Forno, for months. They were considering taking over the nail salon next door, but when Aziz paid them a visit a month or so ago, he presented a different idea.
“Knowing what we were going to do and what we had in mind, he just asked us if we’d be interested to take over his place,” Alban said. “It worked out for everyone.”
In the French patisserie and retail shop’s 1,200 square feet, shelves are stacked with chocolates from Maxims, confit, tapenade and marinades from L’Epirucrean and macarons, all shipped from France. The kitchen nearby churns out homemade croissants, brioche and baguettes, as well as tarts, tea cakes and petit fours.
“We added high tea over the years and through Covid, a lunch menu,” Alban said, “which has done well.”
A variety of crepes — both sweet and savory — freshly prepared salads, light sandwiches, homemade soups and entrees, such as ratatouille, are offered. Once the Pelletiers move into the Il Forno space, the Far From France menu will evolve more, with dinner likely added.
“There are several things to work out first,” Alban said, though remained mum on specifics of the menu. “It will be French style, what we do.”
The Pelletiers will be renovating the former pizza joint in coming months. The centerpiece of the space, the wood-fired grill, will be sold.
“I would love to keep it, but it’s taking too much space for what we want to do,” Alban said. “It’s all about trade-offs. We cannot do everything.”
Seating will triple from the 30 or so at the current location to 90-plus, with dining offered both indoors and outdoors. They will be adding more staff as well, and the restaurant will operate more as tableside service with only retail products sold counterside.
“We have some construction to do to modify the space,” Alban said. “But everything will be the same otherwise.”
Far From France will remain open at it current address, 1474 Barclay Pointe Blvd., through the holidays likely up until Valentine’s Day, as renovations are completed at Il Forno. Alban said he is aiming to be operational in the larger kitchen by early spring 2023.
The French chef moved to the states from France in 1997 and worked in hospitality and hotels for years. After enjoying vacations in the Cape Fear area, he and his wife migrated to the East Coast from Dallas in 2016 with the goal to open the shop.
“We had in mind to do something a bit bigger, but not knowing the area, we just took it easy at first — smaller size, small-scale store,” he said.
“Alban is going to do a great job,” Aziz said. “I think he and his wife are wonderful people and can take the place to the next level.”
The Circa Restaurant Group founder has opened and sold dozens of restaurants in the greater Wilmington area since the ‘90s, including Osteria Cichhetti, Brasserie du Soleil and Boca Bay.
In addition to Origins, he still oversees Circa 1922, approaching its 20th year in downtown Wilmington. Another project, an oyster bar to open in the Renaissance, will break ground “any day now,” he added.
And that’s not all on his agenda — though Aziz wasn’t quite ready to reveal what else is coming down the pipeline.
“I love the idea of putting together concepts,” he said, noting the creative process of scaling a new restaurant — from designing its aesthetics to devising menus with chefs. “But I’m not a young guy anymore, so turning over Il Forno felt like a natural next step.”
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