AN ARTISTIC CULINARY CURATION BY JOHANNE KILLEEN + GEORGE GERMON
Just as Botticelli’s meticulous brushstrokes in Florence resulted in the world-famous Birth of Venus, chefs Johanne Killeen and George Germon combined their nuanced recipes with unique aesthetics to create an Italian masterpiece of their own in the heart of Providence.
Known as Al Forno, which means “from the oven,” the ristorante not only serves some of the most renowned Italian dishes in the country—like their signature grilled pizzas and baked pastas—but provides clients with a sensual dining experience as authentic as a trip to Italy.
Killeen and Germon’s relationship to food and art has deep roots in both Italy and Providence. They attended undergraduate school at RISD, where Killeen studied photography, and Germon pottery and sculpture. Although only acquaintances at RISD, they both traveled to Italy following their graduation, which helped bring them together.
Killeen studied photography in Florence for six months, where she says she began her “love affair” with Tuscan cooking:
“I was an extra hand at a restaurant outside of Florence. Not a formal employment, but more a help to the family,” Killeen said. “The menu was very limited but I learned a lot from the cook—a generous woman who kept no secrets in the kitchen. At that time I put the camera down and concentrated on absorbing the food and culture.”
At the same time, Germon moved to Rome to teach for RISD’s European Honors program. Known among friends as a true “renaissance man,” Germon (who passed away in 2015) was a creative mind with the skill and craftsmanship to design anything from a building to a pizza.
“George was also a professional builder and an amazing woodworker,” Killeen said. “He had building experience from growing up with his uncles, who were masons and house builders.”
Al Forno opened its doors to the public on January 2nd, 1980 and has amassed a large following of foodies, Italian lovers, celebrity chefs, and Providence locals. Ina Garten—a famous chef, author and host of the Food Network program Barefoot Contessa—writes that Al Forno is “one of her favorite restaurants in the world.”
In 2015, Al Forno was featured on the Food Network show Top 5 Restaurants, hosted by Geoffrey Zakarian and Sunny Anderson, as one of the five best Italian restaurants in America. Zakarian and Anderson declare Al Forno’s “Baked Shells with 5 Cheeses” (or “Pasta in Pink”) the second best Italian dish in the entire country, and explain that entering Al Forno’s atmosphere really “feels like you’ve crossed the Atlantic.”
Killeen says Al Forno was conceived in the midst of a what she calls a “restaurant revolution.”
“…very creative people, who were not necessarily trained in the industry, were bringing their talents and their way of thinking—from whatever they studied—into the kitchen.” She said. “…I suppose with anything you study you learn a certain discipline, and the education that we got at RISD was basically learning how to solve problems. We brought that sensibility to the kitchen with our aesthetics, and it just happened to be a magical combination.”
Killeen returned to Providence in the 70s, where she intended to start her own photography business. “I took a job cooking because I bought a Hasselblad camera—it was super wide, very exotic—and then found myself without rent money…so I started working for [my friend] Dewey.” Killeen said. Dewey Dufresne owned “Joe’s Upstairs,” a popular restaurant and live music venue known for its sandwiches.
“…I would just come out of the darkroom…which is such a solitary environment…and get into my sunlit kitchen and start cooking,” she said. “That was my release from the dreariness of the dark.”
Killeen cooked desserts, salads, and sandwiches at Joe’s Upstairs for two years. Coincidentally, Dewey had hired Germon to help design and construct Tini’s, and later to work in the kitchen alongside Killeen. As Killeen and Germon bonded over their mutual love of Italy at Joe’s Upstairs, the seeds of Al Forno were sown.
“George took off his carpenter’s apron one day and put on a chef’s apron and we opened the doors. That’s how we started working together…” Killeen said. “…and then it was love that took over in terms of wanting to do a project together. He was working in architecture at the time and I was doing freelance photography, and we just thought, ‘why don’t we open a restaurant?’ You know, the most naive of naive ideas, and that’s what we did, and then it kind of took over our lives.”
But none of it could have happened without encountering almost seven years worth of obstacles. “We made a lot of mistakes,” she said. “…but George and I were such a team…I had his back and he had my back. I could start a sentence and he could finish it and vice versa. I could start a recipe and he could finish it and vice versa. That’s how we got through it all, we had each other.”
For Killeen and Germon, the creation of Al Forno was more than merely opening a restaurant, but a means of using their artistic education, skill, and passion to highlight the nuances of Italian culinary tradition.
“We stopped trying to think about what people want and what people think…we started doing what we wanted to do, what we thought was best, and we both had this unbelievable love for Italy. We wanted to bring something back, not literally, but whether it was a feeling or a taste. That was our whole focus: trying to have our experiences translate into an American vernacular, but still have the essence of Italy to offer.”
Just as a fine artist needs good tools and a keen eye, Killeen emphasizes the importance of fresh ingredients, especially for simple Italian dishes:
“…the most important lesson that we learned living [in Italy] was that the food source was so close by, and seasonality was a very real thing. So we learned to deal with things that were part of New England,” she said. “No matter what, if you start with [an ingredient] that’s inferior, a nice sauce is not going to make it better…if you don’t start with good grapes, you’re not going to have good wine.”
For Killeen, the concept of “farm to table” should already be inherent in every restaurant, rather than a marketing point. “If I hear that phrase one more time…” she said.
In fact, for the first 15 years after Al Forno’s opening, the menu changed every day depending on which ingredients were the freshest. For instance, the day that Germon first put pizza dough on the grill was the same day that the famous grilled pizza was put on the menu. Although Al Forno is deeply rooted in Italian tradition, Killeen still thinks like an artist—that there is always room for creativity and originality.
“I always learn something new from tradition…I think it’s really important to dig down deep inside yourself if you’re trying to do something that is original” said Killeen. “I think that’s maybe another thing that was so important to me and George because of our backgrounds and our God-given talents. We could come up with things that were totally original, and there aren’t many originals out there at all. I mean, think of how many people are copying grilled pizza, for instance.”
Al Forno’s famous grilled pizzas, baked pastas, and baked-to-order desserts put an original twist on Italian classics that keep clients coming back for more. While many restaurants boast about cookies baked to order, for example, or freshly churned ice cream, Al Forno has been doing this from the very start.
“There’s definitely a cycle to everything. I can remember opening up food magazines after we’d been doing the cookie finale for several years, and the new “thing” was cookies baked to order, and I just thought how new is that?…the chocolate covered grapefruit peels in the cookie finale are also made fresh every single day, which just goes back to quality and integrity,” Killeen said.
One of Killeen’s most memorable moments was when she bought an issue of the International Herald Tribune in 1996, only to read that Al Forno was classified as the best casual restaurant in the world. Since then, the praise has continued.
Al Forno has also been recognized in Esquire Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Food and Wine Magazine. Emeril Lagasse, a world famous chef, posted the recipe for Germon’s famous grilled pizza on his website, and just above the recipe, he states, “this is one of the easiest and most delicious pizza recipes you will come across…the dough is killer.”
Just as artists intend to provoke thought or a feeling with their work, Killeen and Germon set out to accomplish this reaction with their cooking.
“Through cooking we want to influence people, to trigger recollections and associations, to conjure up feelings, and in that process to create a world,” Killeen writes in the introduction to her cookbook, Cucina Simpatico. “We make art that’s ephemeral, art that disappears…we want the little universe we’ve created, made up of smells and tastes and memories, to reverberate in people’s lives long after the meal is eaten.”
Although Killeen and Germon’s art is ephemeral, you can experience it for yourself between the hours of 5 and 10pm Tuesdays through Fridays, and 4 and 10pm on Saturdays. Killeen believes that “the unique sensual and tactile pleasures offered by food and eating are among life’s greatest pleasures”—and if you’re lucky enough to get a table, you’ll see that she’s right.
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Al Forno: 577 South Water Street, Providence, RI 02903
Photographs by Nicole Betuel
Edited by Rachel Gross