Review: Fornaro's Italian food by way of Brazil is hearty but not subtle

It’s no secret that Italian is among the most loved cuisines in the world. Restaurants serving food from the boot thrive from Bangkok to Bermuda. And in every culture, local tastes transform what shows up on the plate. 

Witness Miami, where many of the beloved Italian eateries are owned by Argentines or Venezuelans. I was curious when Fornaro, a Brazilian import, opened recently in my neighborhood, joining a dozen other pizza-and-pasta joints.

Owner Lorenzo Ramon transported his cozy, homey vision to Coconut Grove with food that is plenty hearty and comforting — if not at all subtle. It’s reminiscent of an old-fashioned, red-sauce, Italian-American spot on Mulberry Street.

Here, even the decor looks like it might have come out of Little Italy, with whitewashed brick walls, subway tiles, checkerboard floors and sturdy Edison-bulb blossoms that create a flattering glow.

The open kitchen surrounds a wood-burning oven. In addition to the comfortable, quiet atmosphere and exceedingly friendly service, a menu priced at nearly half of other spots nearby makes it worth a try for budget-conscious diners with a taste for heavy fare.

Portions are large and filling. Perhaps the best thing I tasted was a massive chicken picatta. A thick breast is pounded to a still-hulking half-inch, then gently sautéed with a light flour coating until golden. Then it’s covered in a lemony, rosemary-flecked sauce with lots of sliced white mushrooms and plump capers. It could feed a family.

The waiters all tout a very sweet and creamy pasta, the fiocchi, or purse, stuffed with pears drowning in a saffron sauce as thick as pudding with strips of sweet, sundried tomato. I found the sauce so overwhelmingly creamy that it was hard to enjoy more than a few forkfuls.

The penne puttanesca, or whore’s pasta, utilizes fresh herbs from the garden out front as well as a fair amount of olives, capers, garlic and tomato. But with pasta so overcooked it arrives falling apart on the plate, it is hard to love this lady of the night.

Thank goodness for the decent wines to cut through the richness. A serviceable list includes several by-the-glass options, including a rugged Cab served nicely chilled.

For a place named for the baker, you would hope the pizzas would sport a better crust. We sampled one with paper-thin shavings of sausage and sweet curls of onion, but found it all to be rather ho-hum, especially on a crust that is as crispy as a cracker without any of the lovely bendy chewiness that defines a good pizza. That same dough is baked until crunchy with herbs and served as a complimentary bread basket at the start of each meal. 

The thickly dressed Caesar salad had only a hint of anchovy. But the nicely chopped leaves of romaine are crisp and cold. The generous shavings of thick parmesan lack the fine, crystalline sign of age I crave. Plus, the croutons, which did seem homemade, were flaccid. 

Calamari in a bowl with red-and-white checked paper are tender and lightly breaded without too much residual grease, but the coating needs a bit of crunch on the outside. A bowl of marinara for dipping adds needed flavor.

Another house specialty, polpettone, was a real curiosity. To me a polpettone, which translates to large meatball, should be like a meatloaf. I’ve had these juicy family dishes stuffed with combinations of cheese, boiled egg, eggplant, carrots, provolone and onions, but never like this. 

Here it’s like a deep-fried Oreo of pounded beef sandwiching gooey mozzarella cheese. It’s as close to County Fair food as I’ve seen in a restaurant. Even a mild-mannered tomato sauce cannot help this oddity. 

Sides include a cheese-laden eggplant parm with a layer of sauce thicker than the eggplant, which I never did unearth beneath its even thicker coating of bread. A side of sautéed artichoke hearts has the metallic flavor that seems to indicate that they are from a can or that they have been drenched in lighter fluid.

Desserts run the gamut from the pedestrian (molten chocolate cake) to the potent, Frangelico-soaked tiramisu.

There are those who may love this style of cooking — call it what you will — but I find it too heavy for my taste. Still, with a friendly staff, great prices and a few dishes that work, it might be a good addition to the neighborhood. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter: @VictoraPesceE.