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When new owners take over a long-established and much-loved restaurant, the regulars are inevitably unsettled. Will the menu stay the same? Or, worse still, will their beloved restaurant be replaced by a completely new concept? Thankfully, in the case of Al Forno, the answers were, respectively, a resounding yes, and no.
New owners Daniel Gregory and Derek Naughtin had no intention of changing anything, certainly not in the first three months. Now they’re through that period, they are, says Daniel, even more convinced that Al Forno’s success lies in both its personality and in the style and quality of food that it offers. They had, of course, sampled the food and the service before considering buying the whole restaurant. “For me, says Daniel, ”the food was fantastic, not trying to be fancy but good hearty Italian food.”
The message from regulars, who make up about 50% of Al Forno’s diners was clear: “Don’t change the menu!” They come in, says Daniel, and simply order their favourite dish. They certainly didn’t want change.
Head chef Nikola Markoski, who’s been at Al Forno since three months after it opened in April 2010, has remained with the new owners. Together, they’ve retained the same menu, created by Niko and previous owner Mario, with its emphasis on traditional, authentic Italian family fare, based on recipes handed down and passed on from one chef to another. “We had thought we’d give it three months and then see what we needed to change,” says Daniel. “Within a month we realised everything is so good, and that every item on the menu sells. There was no need for change.”
The specials are generally changed out monthly, but when Niko recently added risotto (risotto marinara and risotto al pollo), it proved so popular that it is now likely to remain on the menu all winter. As winter advances, you’ll also likely find more substantial stews and casseroles on the specials board.
The most popular dishes, says Derek, are tried and true Italian fare: tortellini di pollo, scaloppini masala, linguini Al Forno (rich in prawns, garlic, lemon and anchovies), and the 450 gram dry aged rib eye. People love the generous portion sizes, he adds. There are smaller portions of dishes similar to the main menu for the kids; the take-out menu, which gets a real workout on Fridays and Sundays, largely replicates the eat-in menu.
Just as diners are attracted to Al Forno for the Italian food, so they choose Italian wines. Daniel and Derek have, in the last month, introduced several new Italian wines to the extensive wine list. Most are not available anywhere else as they’ve negotiated exclusivity with their suppliers.
Al Forno is popular with locals for special occasion celebrations as well as for regular meals. Locals also bring clients in for dinner, and there is always a smattering of visitors, especially when events are held in Takapuna itself.
They’re all attracted by the lively authentic Italian experience Al Forno offers. As the evening progresses, the atmosphere gets louder, says Derek. “People love it. They thrive off the energy and the hustle.” And in winter, they especially enjoy the open wood-fired pizza oven that not only adds to the atmosphere but augments the warm welcome Derek and Daniel offer their guests.
Al Forno, 34 Anzac Street, Takapuna www.alforno.co.nz 09 488 0179
Open Tues to Sun 5pm until late. Bookings advised.
Channel Magazine: Issue 77 June 2017