n Italian “il forno” means the oven. When we think of an oven we often associate it with words such as food, warmth and family. Owner, Mick Pugilese could not have picked a more fitting name for his Italian restaurant.
Nestled in Merchants Walk Plaza is a little piece of Italy waiting to be explored, but you don’t have to pay for the plane ticket in order to receive an authentic Italian meal. Many Italian restaurants may claim to offer the true flavors of Italy, but at Il Forno that is a guarantee. Before moving to Florida 12 years ago Pugilese lived in Naples, Italy throughout his life. Not only that, but he also holds a degree from his five years spent in culinary school. With this kind of background Pugilese offers the best of Italian recipes.
Il Forno opened in 2004 and has provided reasonably priced lunches and dinners in a family friendly environment ever since. Before opening Il Forno, Pugilese previously worked in and managed restaurants. Pugilese’s work ethic reflects his passion for putting his customers first. He said, “I like to be busy, but I like to see people enjoying their food more. I prefer doing less business but doing it right, than doing a lot of business but doing it wrong.”
Any day of the week, it is apparent that Pugilese is running a successful business. Tables are full and business is steady throughout the majority of the day. The staff is friendly and makes the extra effort to assure that you are content with your entire dinning experience. There is also the tempting smell of garlic bread wafting from the doorway and around the corner that entices many passersby inside.
The space is not large, but you don’t feel crowded. You feel a comforting closeness to other patrons, but not a feeling like you are sitting at the same table. The walls are hand painted with Italian scenery. The scents of basil, garlic and pasta drift through the air. And even a glass of wine can be enjoyed. The atmosphere certainly sets the tone for the meal you are about to enjoy.
The menu consists of salad, soup, sandwich, pasta and pizza selections. There are so many possibilities that it is hard to chose just one dish to try. The most popular dishes are the lasagna, penne alla vodka and the baked ziti, but any dish will be worth your while. The prices are unbelievably low for the portion of food you will receive. Your heaping pile of pasta could end up being your lunch and dinner for the next day. The prices are best at lunch with Il Forno’s well-known and highly praised lunch specials ranging from $4.99 to $8.99. There are over 20 dishes you can choose from in this price range at lunchtime. All are served with a house breadstick and a house salad or cup of soup can be added for just $0.99. Start your meal off right with any of the appetizers. The bruschetta or the caprese are two highly recommended plates that give you an introduction to true Italian dinning. The bruschetta is dare we say it, the best in town. The little cuts of Italian bread are perfectly toasted. Not too crispy, but toasted enough to soak in the juices of the tomato marinade instead of swimming in it. The marinade itself is bursting with flavor. The tomatoes are sweet but tart because of the mixture of basil and garlic that are tossed in. The caprese is also a nice light start to the meal. The tomatoes are ripe, and pair perfectly with the thick slices of mozzarella drizzled in a tangy, sweet balsamic glaze. The mozzarella is one of the prides and joys of Il Forno because of its freshness and unique taste. The combination of basil and olive oil make the balsamic glaze unlike any you ever tasted. The ever-popular Penne alla vodka is a best seller for a reason. This penne pasta is served in a bowl of creamy pink vodka sauce. The sauce is not overpowering and lends itself nicely to the juicy bits of prosciutto ham dispersed throughout. While it is a pasta dish there is enough prosciutto in it to serve as a serving of meat. The sauce is the main selling point. Its texture is a mixture between a cream sauce and tomato sauce, and it has a distinct flavor that is light yet heavy in flavor. As Pugilese says, “The sauce is why it is one of our top sellers.” The pasta dishes are served with a breadstick and a house salad. If you would like to try something different than the typical carbohydrate filled Italian fare, the Chicken Francese is downright delightful. The cut of chicken is so tender you don’t need a knife, and the flavor is surprisingly bold with lemon wine sauce soaked in throughout the batter. The chicken breast is lightly battered and perfectly golden. The chicken is then sautéed in a blend of wine and lemon with the addition of other seasonings. A bite of this chicken is juicy and bursting with the bright flavor of lemon and subtle hints of white wine. This dish is paired with pasta of your choice, a warm bread stick and either a Caesar or house salad. Of course you must try the warm, buttery breadsticks or a dozen of the famous garlic knots with any meal. The pizzas are large enough to feed a table and are packed with an abundance of toppings. Two pizza choices that are unique to Il Forno are the Il Forno Supreme and Pizza Genovese. The Il Forno Supreme is New York style topped with pepperoni, bacon, green peppers, onions and mushrooms. The Pizza Genovese is a white pizza with sun dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and a flavorful pesto sauce. Even the salads and sandwiches are enough to fill you up and leave you happy. The Walnut Gorgonzola salad is not only unique, but will please the vegetarians with mixed greens, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, red onions and grape tomatoes. All sandwiches are served hot, and the Meatball Parmigiana is worth trying for the homemade meatballs and famous mozzarella alone. If you can manage to loosen your belt enough, save some room for a delicious Italian treat of a cannoli or some tiramisu. Yum. If you feel like enjoying an Il Forno meal at home they offer take out or if you would like Italian food at a party or event they offer catering. This allows you to share a bit of Il Forno’s traditions wherever you go. As Pugilese said, “We use fresh products and ingredients. Nothing is overpowering. We make the flavors merge together.” This in fact is an accurate way of describing the food at Il Forno. The sauces are refreshing instead of heavy with spices and garlic. The vegetables, cheeses and pastas are the best quality and taste. This is all because 90 percent of what Il Forno serves is made in house. You won’t find frozen or pre made food here. This also may cause you a bit of a wait for your food, but we assure you it is well worth it.
Pugilese comes up with daily specials each morning in order to add some variety to his menu and give his regulars a new adventure. He gives insight in the kitchen and handles the business aspects all while making his customers the top priority. This is apparent by his presence in the restaurant. He cheerfully greets guests and then proceeds to make sure the rest of their Il Forno experience is nothing short of enjoyable. Pugilese said, “I want people to experience not just dinner, but a full experience. Whether it is from the food or the service. I want them to feel like a part of the family.” He does his best to do this by hiring the best of the best for his staff and providing an environment where people feel comfortable. He said, “I enjoy people the most about my job. When people come here I make them feel at home. They see me upset, they see me joying and they see me loving. It’s like going to a grandma’s house for an Italian dinner.” Indeed it is, with the welcoming atmosphere and true Italian style cuisine.
With Il Forno’s 10-year anniversary soon approaching, Pugilese’s hope for the restaurant is to expand. Pugilese would love to open one or even two more locations, and it goes without saying that many would benefit with the addition of more authentic Italian restaurants. Yet, Pugilese may always be partial to Il Forno’s first location, since the bricks outside remind him of home in Naples. It is true Il Forno really does make you feel like family, but there has to be more than just the staff and the atmosphere. It is the food. When asked if there were any special ingredients or techniques that went into making the food, Pugilese replied, “love and passion.” When we think of an oven in our own home we think of the love and passion our mother, grandmother, father or grandfather put into the food being prepared. Il Forno does just that. They welcome you as a part of their family, straight from their own oven.
Il Forno 863.607.6030 3615 S. Florida Ave, Suite 1310, Lakeland