It’s always good when a restaurant shakes you out of your complacency, and genuinely surprises you. It’s worth all the flaccid pizzas and food service ready meals.

Take Il Forno. It was always an unwritten fact that there were two types of Italian restaurant – the cheap and cheerful, and the overdressed and disappointing. As if the quality of the meal was in reverse proportion to the quality of the gold plated taps.

So Il Forno, when it arrived at the top end of Duke Street, all torches blazing, marble and mirrors, and huge open-jawed pizza oven had ‘overpriced and underwhelming’ written all over it.

But there’s a twist – because Il Forno wasn’t just a glossy magazine spread in waiting, it was home to a skilled and passionate crew if Italian food evangelists. And, before long, diners forgot to look at the backlit onyx and the wrap around deli counter and, instead, focussed on the main event, the simply great plates of pasta, the top drawer house specials and the plummily delicious Chiantis.

It is, by some margin, the best upscale Italian in town (although we still miss Boca De Bacca’s garlic bread), and, as evidenced by the buzzing atmosphere on the Monday evening we called in, it’s a view we’re not alone in forming. Hey, we’ll even forgive the dodgy frescoes.

The wonderfully effusive manager, Donato gave us a whistle stop tour of his homeland by way of a charcuterie plate of the finest Parma hams, Salerno cheeses and roasted vegetables, drizzled with spicy Italian olive oil and balsamic. We could have stopped there, if we’re honest.

But, in that labyrinthine way that all Italian menus are set out, we knew we were here for the long hall. Primi, Pesci, Antipasti and Ringo. We loosened our belts. We took a swig of an incredibly jammy Chianti and settled in.

Next up was the Triangoli di Pesce Spada Al Crostacei (Homemade pasta filled with sword fish and served with tiger prawns) and a seasonal dish of a blue cheese and walnut ravioli, both of which I would happily have delivered, fresh each morning, for breakfast. They were simply mini works of art: no flavour out-punching its neighbours, each mouthful a mini Italian opera.

We’ve tried, and loved, the pizza and pasta before, so this time (somewhat ambitiously), we followed with Steak Fiorentina – bistecca alla fiorentina – a thick flank of T-bone (three fingers thick, if you must know), grilled over slab of volcanic stone, seasoned with salt, and (after the steak is retired from the fire) nutty olive oil.

Thickly cut and served rare I had to balance my strips on their end to let some of that Tuscan blood sizzle away (and to secretly sear it a bit more. I know, I’m such a philistine). The meat was very obviously of a quality you just don’t happen upon in many city restaurants. You couldn’t serve it this simply – this nakedly – and get away with it otherwise. And I always comfort myself in situations like this by secretly remembering that the Queen likes her sirloin well done, so I obviously must have some royal blood in me, if not the blood of a grass fed Welsh Black.

There is nothing I can tell you about our selection of gelato and cakes, of hot chocolate fondues and Tiramisu ice cream with zabaglione liqueur without embarrassing myself (I write halfway through a tedious January detox). So I’ll simply say this: in every way possible, Il Forno dazzles. And we’re lucky to have it. Our meal came in at around £120. But, here’s the crucial bit, we paid for the food, not the decoration.

Il Forno
123 Duke Street

10 Responses to “Review: Il Forno”

  1. Interesting, I wonder if it has improved then.

    I’ve eaten there 4-5 times over the years and it has varied from average to exceptionally poor with terrible service.

    Great news if the quality of the food has improved to the level suggested by the reviews on Trip Advisor etc.

    At best I’d say it’s inconsistent.

  2. Likewise, I went a couple of years ago and wasn’t terribly impressed, but went before Christmas and had a great time. They seem to be more consistent nowadays from what I’ve heard/read.

  3. I went there not so long ago and to be honest I didn’t think it was that great. Maybe my palette isn’t very sophisticated or something but I just left thinking “I could have made that at home for a 10th of the price”. MUCH prefer Mayur just down the road from them, now THAT fills me with excitement and I really don’t think I could match their flavours at home! Luckily, my boss was paying so nothing lost, just wouldn’t go again.

  4. Ronnie de Ramper

    I do wish people would stop reviewing Il Forno favourably. I’ve been going there regularly since it opened. It’s remains by far the best Italian restaurant in Liverpool. But all this flattering attention means it now attracts ‘coach parties’, mobs of people who want what they know. Accordingly, the formerly wide-choice menu has been reined in. And the wine list has been cruelly decimated. In the case of the latter, this is a real loss. Il Forno used to stock a gorgeous selection of uncommon Italian regional wines. No longer. People want Chianti and….umm…that’s it. So the wine list, still good, is much reduced in range.

    OK, my tongue is in my cheek a little. I’m delighted Il Forno is thriving. But please let it not become another Est Est Est, or whatever that is now called.

    Mayur is excellent too!

  5. Alan C

    One thing rarely mentioned in restaurant reviews is how NOISY a place is. A meal out with friends or family is usually a chance to chat and catch up. If I’m sitting across the table from somebody and have to raise my voice to be heard, I don’t go back. At Il Forno, the food was good (but not great) but the ramped up ambience spoilt the night. Shhhhhhhhhhh….

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