Where there's smoke there's fire - and fine food
Providence, R.I. — DON'T be concerned if you smell smoke outside the Al Forno restaurant, located in a small storefront here. And don't worry if you smell more smoke inside - you're supposed to.
In fact, George Germon, co-owner and co-chef, has probably just dashed through the charcoal-gray dining room like an Olympic torch-carrier with a piece of smoking wood between a pair of tongs.
The idea is to leave the delicate scent of sweet apple wood hanging in the air. It's all part of the effect and a clue to what's going on in the kitchen.
Back there, George, his wife, Johanne Killeen, or one of their assistants is stoking a grill with natural hardwood charcoal and teasing little pieces of dried fruitwood onto the rosy coals.
These bits of wood give off just enough smoke to flavor the northern Italian menu at Al Forno, which is Italian for ''from the oven.''
George and Johanne were fascinated with charcoal grilling long before they opened their 32-seat restaurant.
As children they watched their fathers fire up the backyard barbecue for Saturday night wiener roasts. Years later, when Johanne worked part time in a little restaurant in Italy where grilling was a specialty, her interest continued to grow.
Returning to the United States, working as pastry chef at a restaurant, she met George, the head chef.
Years later, after they married, they devoted weekends to roasting on the grill. Summer jaunts to the beach always included a small portable hibachi for grilling fresh fish, mussels, or even paella.
''You have to be careful what wood you pick up on the beach,'' Johanne warns. ''One time wood we had gathered was full of creosote and it smoked up the cottage so much we couldn't go back for three days.''
This isn't a problem at Al Forno. All wood used is gathered from local orchards - it's mostly apple, but lilac branches and grape prunings from a nearby vineyard are also used.
''Lilac too, gives a lovely perfume flavor to delicate fish and chicken dishes,'' she says.
It's the chicken and fish dishes they recommend most, as these easily pick up the subtle smoke flavor.
''Actually, I'd just as soon stick to chicken, fish, and pizza, and not even serve meat in the restaurant,''Johanne says ''but people in Providence have to have their filet mignon.''
Pizza is the specialty of the house. ''As far as I know we're the only restaurant grilling pizza in the country,'' she says.
''We tried it after talking to someone who had just returned from northern Italy and raved about it. We had never even heard of it, but we tried it and it's the best.''
The best imported olive oil certainly helps and the very freshest ingredients - there isn't even a freezer in the restaurant.
Having recently purchased a gas grill, I was disappointed when Johanne dismissed them as ''useless.'' ''We have one in our backyard that we've used twice. Never again,'' she remarked.
George and Johanne may end up planting petunias in their gas grill, but then, they are purists.
The other thing you don't mention in George or Johanne's presence is charcoal briquettes.
''They spoil the flavor with a terrible smell from some kind of glue and petroleum products, and there's the smelly lighter fluid stuff makes it even worse,'' Johanne said. Hardwood charcoal is usually available if you look, she says.
As far as wood goes, any local hardwood will do. There's no need to send for those fancy ''in'' woods like mesquite. Maple, oak, and fruitwoods are wonderful ,'' she says.
''Just stay away from wood filled with sap like pine, and soft woods like birch that burn too quickly.
''Get to know your local orchard or vineyard owner,'' she advises. ''Find out when they prune. They will usually let you cart off any trimmings.'' ''
Johanne also suggests adding a different flavor by tossing leftover orange peels, lemon peels, or onion skins on the glowing coals.
''The secret to successful grilling is patience and attention,'' George insists. ''Patience in waiting for the fire to be just right for the particular job.
''Paying attention to the way the fire develops and changes.
''A medium-to-cool fire is when the coals have begun to cool and form a gray ash. There should be no flame.
''A medium- to-hot fire is when the coals have become orange-red and the flames have died down and there re-mains little or no black or unburned part of the coals.''
''Be sure the grill is absolutely clean to avoid bitterness. And guard against flareups from basting oils and fats,'' Johanne says. ''This can cause a heavy char that gives foods an unpleasant taste.''
The following recipes are simple starting points with room for experimentation.
All ingredients, they note, should be of the freshest and best quality. Grilled Chicken With Almond-Lemon Pesto 1 8-to 10-ounce double breast of chicken per person Olive oil Almond-Lemon-Parsley Pesto Parsley for garnish
Prepare medium-hot charcoal-wood fire. Brush both sides of chicken breast with olive oil. Place it skin side down on grill.
Cook 2 minutes, give chicken 1/4 turn, still skin side down to make criss-cross grill marks. Cook 2 minutes, turn skin side up. Grill until done, about 3 minutes.
Total cooking time is 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to heated plate. Spoon pesto over chicken, garnish with chopped parsley and serve. Parsley Pesto 1 1/2 cups lightly toasted almonds 2 cloves elephant garlic, or 4 regular 1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice 1 cup fruity virgin olive oil Salt Crushed red pepper
Finely chop nuts in food processer. Add garlic, parsley, and lemon juice. Blend till smooth. Through feed tube add olive oil in a stream. Add salt and red pepper to taste. Grilled Vegetables
Vegetables are best grilled slowly over a medium-cool fire. They should be first brushed, then basted with a good fruity green virgin olive oil. Don't add salt and pepper before cooking.
Grill lightly all vegetables except peppers, cut side down first, then cook for a longer time on the skin side.
Peppers: Peppers should be cut in half lengthwise. Brush inside and out with olive oil. Grill cut side down and lightly finish on skin side. Smoke circulates in the cavity giving a lovely perfumed flavor.
The skin side should be grilled lightly to prevent skin from separating.
Grill the following vegetables lightly on cutside, then cook skin side: Brush vegetables with olive oil.
Belgian endive: Cut lengthwise.
Eggplant: Peel, slice in 3/8- to 1/2-inch rounds and baste liberally during grilling. Zucchini: Use small squash; cut lengthwise.