WILMINGTON — After a soft opening last week, Il Forno Pizzeria is roaring along at The Pointe at Barclay.
The new restaurant follows in the Italian style of owner Ash Aziz’s two Osteria Cicchetti locations; but while the OC does offer Neapolitan-style pizza, at Il Forno they are front and center, served from the imposing gas-and-wood-fired oven in the middle of the restaurant.
Chef Roberta Campani called the oven “a real beast.” And though “the oven” – as Il Forno translates into English – dominates the room, it’s Campani and her dedication to Italian cuisine that really seem to power the restaurant.
The Tuscany-Wilmington express
Campani, a native of Tuscany, spent 24 years working as a private chef in Wilmington; she also ran the popular Italian bakery La Gemma with her husband. Campani returned to Italy in 2015, and has spent that last two years working as a culinary tutor and guiding food tours around Tuscany.
“Whatever it is they want to do, it’s okay, I make it happen,” Campani said. “If they want to visit the farm, or go on the truffle hunt, or – this is my favorite – the olive harvesting.”
The olive harvesting is a three-day event. The scenic countryside – and pressed-that-day olive oil – is the pay-off, but Campani said the hard work appealed to her work ethic.
“First the hard work, then the reward,” Campani said. “The olive trees are planted on a hill, and the work – getting the olives off the branches – is very, you know, physical. I love it. And, also, when it is time to break for food, which yes of course always starts with a bottle of fresh olive oil, and the good Tuscan bread, and the tomatoes — when you sit down to eat you are very hungry, which makes everything even better.”
Despite her love for Italy, Campani has made frequent trips back to Wilmington.
“Italy is my home, but you know this is my home too, I cannot choose,” Campani said.
A fateful dinner
Her most recent return to Wilmington proved to be fateful.
Over the years, Campani has established an annual ritual: Father’s Day dinner at Boca Bay, another of Aziz’s restaurants. Campani said she and Aziz seemed to have passed each other many times, like ships in the night, until recently.
“There were many times, he was maybe looking for someone and I wasn’t looking to get into anything like that, or when I was looking and he didn’t need anyone, but this time, it was the right time,” Campani said.
The time felt right, but Campani wasn’t sure about going into a commercial kitchen. For decades, Campani had been a private chef, answering to personal budgets, not the stricter overhead of a brick and mortar restaurant. In other words, Campani is used to being able to shop for the best ingredients; she expected Aziz to rein that in.
“He’s been to Italy, and he knows – what it is, how it is done – and even so, he said, ‘I want to do authentic Italian,’ and I said, ‘OK, I guess.’ But I didn’t know for sure. The thing for me, I do not care if there are certain number of covers, if it is 100 people or 300 people. To feed people, if it’s a short cut or something, I cannot do it,” Campani said.
But Aziz won her over, Campani said.
“But then we started talking, the dough, the cheeses, speck and prosciutto, all the good stuff, and not cutting corners or taking short cuts. So, I was surprised, but also excited. I said, ‘OK, now I know we are going to do this.”
PIzza for breakfast? Pizza for breakfast.
Campani went to work. Aziz and Campani planned out the menu, including ‘cicchettes,’ an Italian cousin of tapas, as well as pasta dishes. But pizza was crucial, Campani said, “we had to get that just right.”
Because she was still working as a private chef – and because Aziz’s restaurants had full time crews working from morning until night – Campani had to get in her pizza research and development in early. Really early.
“I would get there at five in the morning, maybe earlier, before anyone was there. For a couple of weeks we worked on the dough, I made three different doughs, just to start with,” Campani said. “By the time people came in, I would have a long table covered in parchment paper, with all the different pizzas, about 15 different pizzas all lined up.”
Campani said she would watch as Aziz sampled the different attempts.
“At first he was, you know, like a person tasting wine, but then – when it was right – he would be different, he would eat it, how do you say it — with gusto. Then I would know, okay, that’s going to be the one he chooses to put on the menu,” she said.
For Campani there was one further test: pizza for breakfast.
“I mean, I had been eating pizza every day for breakfast. But, for the dough, to be right, you don’t really know until you eat it the next day,” she said.
If the texture and crispness was still there the following day, Campani was happy. After starting in June, and working for months, Campani finally felt she was there.
“I’m very happy with them now. I say, when I get back to Italy, I’m not going to eat pizza for a whole year. But maybe right now a little bit of pizza,” Campani said.
Campani said her favorite pizza at Il Forno is the speck and mascarpone. She’s also a fan on the seafood lasagna.
“Lasagna di mare, if I’m really ready to get the calories in me,” she said with a laugh. “Although, calories, we have less than most American places. They have ricotta and all those cheeses. It’s like a brick. Ours is more about the béchamel, the good seafood, the fresh pasta – we make that every day pretty much. We make as much as we need, but only for one day. If we run out, we run out.”
To Tuscany and back, again
Chef Campani is headed back to Italy soon, leaving the restaurant in “capable hands,” while she is in Tuscany.
“I’ll be checking in, making sure, ‘did you taste that, does it have enough salt, is it hot enough?’ and then I’ll be back soon enough,” Campani said.
“In a couple of months I’ll be back to check on the them and crack the whip,” Campani said with a laugh. “No, I am kidding. Well, maybe a little bit. It’s okay to keep everyone on their toes, to make sure it’s all the way it should be.”
Il Forno is located at 1474 Barclay Pointe Blvd. at The Pointe at Barclay. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day and features inside and outside seating. You can follow it on Facebook for more information, including specials.
For more information about Chef Roberta Campani’s private chef services – and culinary tours in Tuscany – you can check out her website.