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The Gossiping Gourmet: Great food, same old decor at Forno

Chef Ali Kihanmahd has worked in the restaurant business for 25 years, including 15 spent in top Italian restaurants in New York, and he is now demonstrating his many talents in a charming little restaurant in Costa Mesa called Al Forno Caffe.

With this place, tucked away in a strip mall just off Harbor Boulevard on Mesa Verde Drive East, he hopes to bring a little of New York City to Orange County.

Our waiter was a very personable young man, and my dining companion and I took his suggestions on several dishes. Fried baby artichoke hearts were crispy nuggets perfectly finished by dipping them in an excellent lemon aioli.

We also enjoyed the roasted sliced mushrooms resting in a bed of wonderful creamy polenta topped with goat cheese.

Several other tempting starters include a cheese and meat board with crostini and fig hazelnut spread; poached pear salad with arugula, Gorgonzola dolce, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and honey vinaigrette; and a baby kale salad with a fried egg, Parmesan cheese, pancetta and pine nuts in a lemon vinaigrette.

Five different pizzas are available — Margherita, pesto, soppressata, prosciutto and funghi — as well as nine pastas. The house special is the pizza al forno. Another good meal is the rigatoni buttera, with Italian sausage, sweet peas and creamy tomato sauce.

Again, we took our waiter's suggestion and ordered the house signature pasta dish, the pasta al forno. This is a rich and wonderful entree containing big, fat rigatoni shells slathered in meat sauce, dotted with pulled pork, then topped with a smooth and luscious béchamel sauce and shredded Parmesan cheese. We shared one portion and took the rest home because we still had another entrée on order. (It was just as good the second time around.)

The only dish we found a little less delicious than the rest was the veal Milanese. Although it was perfectly breaded and well seasoned, the meat was a bit chewy. The cutlet was rather thick and maybe needed pounding to tenderize it. It was topped with ripe chopped tomatoes and arugula.

Other tempting entrees are the salmone al forno with leeks, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted potatoes and the chicken cacciatore, which is grilled chicken in mushroom tomato sauce with creamy polenta.

Side dishes are sautéed spinach, roasted potatoes, creamy polenta and lentil stew. Any pasta or pizza can be ordered gluten-free.

Desserts are limited to tiramisu and a daily special. The tiramisu was mostly creamy mascarpone and very little cake. It was OK but nothing to write home about. The daily special, however, was a crème brulee, and it was wonderful.

I'm a sucker for any crème brulee, but this was extra good. What made it outstanding was the lightness of the custard. I usually like a dense custard, but this one was so flavorful and rich. The crunchy burnt sugar topping cracks during the attempt to uncover the treat below.

A few words about the décor: It makes me wonder if there is one very busy interior decorator who has cornered the market on new restaurants. I do like this style, but it seems like every restaurant I have reviewed these days features the same repurposed wood, hanging light bulb fixtures and open ceilings with ductwork. Still, it is pretty and casual and creates a nice ambience.

Happy hour is from 4 to 7 p.m. daily, offering half-price cocktails and wine, as well as selected pizzas for $5. Wednesdays, all the wines are half-price, and on Mondays, there is no corkage fee.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

AL FORNO CAFFE 

Where: 1525 Mesa Verde Drive E., Costa Mesa

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays

Prices:

Appetizers: $7 to $11

Soups and salads: $4 to $9

Entrées: $8 to $18

Desserts: $5 to $6

Wine:

Bottles: $18 to $89

By the glass: $5 to $12

Corkage fee: $15

Information: (657) 232-0100 or alfornocaffe.com

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