Fornaro cooks Italian food by way of Brazil in Coconut Grove

Fornaro photo by Linda Bladholm for the Miami Herald.
Fornaro photo by Linda Bladholm for the Miami Herald.

Find Italian food via Brazil at Fornaro Restaurant & Gourmet Pizza in Coconut Grove, named for the workers who roast and bake in wood-fired brick ovens. 

There is crisp-crust pizza here as well as pastas, meats and seafood served in a modern trattoria with white brick walls, black banquettes, white tablecloths on tables covered with butcher paper, and black-and-white tile floors. Clusters of Edison bulbs dangle over tables and illuminate a small bar.

The 7-month-old Fornaro is owned by Lorenzo Ramon from São Paulo, whose grandmother was Italian. At 18 he went to London to learn English and paid for his studies by working in restaurants. He returned to Brazil and opened several sports bars, started importing wines from Argentina and Chile, and opened Mediterranean restaurants in Bahia and São Paulo. 

Ramon moved to Miami four years ago to ensure a better education for his son. He imported wine but missed the energy of restaurants. He opened Fornaro when his manager scouted chef Marcos Mello, whose grandparents were Portuguese and Italian. 

Mello is from Rio de Janeiro and got his start cooking in the Brazilian armed forces, loved it and went to culinary school in southern Brazil. He came to Miami in 1995 and worked at Andalus, a Spanish restaurant, and Papiche, an Italian one. 

At Fornaro, start with Mantova bruschetta on puffy toasted bread spread with apricot jam topped with Brie and prosciutto. The bruschetta is named after the capital of Lombardy, where Romeo was banished in Shakespeare’s play. 

The house specialty is polpettone, Italian meatloaf that resembles a giant burger made from ground filet mignon stuffed with mozzarella in fresh tomato sauce. Its history can be traced to 5th century Rome with an early recipe found in the famous Roman cookbook Apicius, made with a mix of ground meats bound with egg and breadcrumbs. Although a humble dish, polpettone over centuries was served at the most affluent tables in Italy. 

Other entrées include a hunk of sea bass crusted in almonds in white wine lemon sauce with asparagus; slow-braised veal osso buco on saffron risotto; pan-seared scallops with creamy mascarpone-enriched risotto with a whiff of truffle studded with diced carrot and zucchini; and capellini pasta with mushroom sauce. 

Sides feature quinoa tabbouleh and eggplant parmigiana. For pizza, try the Basilicata from a region of the same name in southern Italy, with thin strips of zucchini, ricotta and parmesan. The Piemonte pizza has artichoke hearts, mushrooms, mozzarella and truffle oil, and the Verona has Parmacotto ham, hard-cooked eggs, onion, black olives, oregano and mozzarella. 

End your tour of Italy with dense fig cake in toffee sauce with vanilla bean ice cream or, in a nod to Brazil, coconut pudding.