Reinventing Italian Food

A creative couple brings an American touch to regional cuisine in their two restaurants

WHY does a plate of fettucine taste different in the United States than it does in Italy? Because Americans - in a word - are fickle. When they fall in love with a new food, they overdo it. They change it. They interpret. They produce it in a dozen variations. "Italian menus seldom change," says George Germon, a Providence restaurateur. "In the United States, change is the name of the game." He and wife Johanne Killeen are co-owners and co-chefs of Al Forno and Lucky's restaurants, both housed in the same waterfront building here.

In Italy, a restaurant's menu "lists specialties and regional dishes," Mr. Germon continues. "Certain ones are favorites with customers. If a customer goes away and comes back four or five years later, he can still find his favorite dish on the menu, cooked and served in the very same way."

Creative American chefs would never cook the same thing twice the same way, he says.

"It would be too boring," says Ms. Killeen. Chefs in the United States borrow techniques, ingredients, and spices from other cuisines. "And so, little by little we feel a crossing of cultures," she says.

"The food we cook in our restaurants is based on Italian traditional foods," says Germon who, with Killeen, has lived and traveled throughout Italy.

"Our customers don't want the same dishes over and over," he says. "Today, people want different tastes on the same plate - they like the variety." He uses chutneys and relishes with the grilled and oven-roasted meats that are a specialty.

"We play with flavor balances by using condiments," says Killeen, "and we like the sensation of several different tastes."

"A good cook uses a recipe, or the memory of a wonderful meal, as a reference point," George says. "Everything continually goes back to that original reference, but the individual tastes and attitudes and the background of the artist, the cook, are always there."

Both Killeen and Germon perform their kitchen collusion from a background at the Rhode Island School of Design. Johanne studied photography at RISD and Germon worked in pottery, sculpture, and architecture.

The couple started their romance with food before they met, when they both lived in Italy. He was in Rome teaching architecture for RISD in the European Honors Program. Johanne went to Florence after graduation to continue her study of photography.

They met when they returned to Providence. Johanne was working as pastry chef in a small restaurant that George had designed. "We fell in love over the kitchen stove," Johanne says. "For us, kitchens have always been romantic places."

In 1981 they opened Al Forno, then a tiny restaurant on Steeple Street in the College Hill section of Providence. There, George developed the smoky-tasting grilled pizza that helped them win several national awards.

Grilled pizza has been widely imitated, but never duplicated. At Al Forno it is made with a paper-thin dough that puffs up on the grill. Then they add home-grown tomatoes, corn kernels, garlic, new potatoes, herbs, asparagus, shredded radicchio, and soft goat cheeses or Gorgonzola.

Al Forno literally means "from the oven," and most of the food is grilled over hardwood or roasted in a brick oven. Along with the pizza, the menu includes baked pasta dishes and robust vegetables fragrant with garlic and Mediterranean herbs.

In 1987 the couple opened a second restaurant called Lucky's, featuring French provincial food, in a waterfront warehouse building on India Point. Al Forno moved into the floor above.

Lucky's kitchen and dining room were designed by George. The kitchen - twice as big as the dining room - has a wood-burning oven with a natural convection system that George created. "I got the idea from tuning exhaust systems," when he used to race motorcycles, he says.

Design and fine arts are obviously a part of the couple's sensitivities, but one does wonder why two art majors are now so deeply involved in food and cooking.

"We look at our work as art, as a project," George explains. "And cooking is an art, not a science. It comes from the heart, not the textbook. When we conceive something, it's always visual first." When you come to our restaurant, he says, "you can tell it's owned by artists - right from the beginning, when you climb the steps, when you smell the fire from our wood stoves."

For both chefs, the appeal of grilling food ("we don't cook this way to be trendy, but for the taste," George insists) revolves around the romance of fire and the appeal of the aromas and flavors of food cooked in it. Different woods impart different flavors: Apple good gives a sweet smoke; grapevine smoke is spicy; lilac branches give off an unmistakable perfume when burned.

"In our cooking, we strive for simplicity," says Johanne. "All our recipes are very simple. Some of our recipes have only three, four, or five ingredients. We use only one herb at a time." They do like to experiment, though. When they de-seeded their tomatoes, for example, they found their sauces were less bitter.

"We find we can serve a 'more authentic' Italian cuisine than was possible in the past simply because more typical ingredients are available," George says. Old- fashioned Italian-American cooking evolved in part to compensate for ingredients that could not be found in the US, such as the hard cheeses, the fresh basil, and the prosciutto, he adds.

One of the couple's passions is grilling things never cooked that way before. At Al Forno you'll find grilled onion salad, sausage and oven-roasted potatoes with grilled bitter greens, grilled chicken breast with grilled stuffed eggplant. Even the crouton is grilled in a summery salad made with fresh native tomatoes and sweet corn.

And pasta? "George is a nut on pasta," Johanne says.

"That's how I grade a restaurant, on its pasta," George says. He's disappointed in "99 percent of the restaurants I eat in. Most places twice-boil it. They take it too casually." At Al Forno's, on the other hand, you'll find "pasta baked in the pink," with cream, tomato, asparagus, and five cheeses.

Recipes for Al Forno's pizza and other dishes are included in "Cucina Sympatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking," by Johanne Killeen and George Germon (Harper Collins, 1991, $25).

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