Going to Fortina is like going to a party at your really cool friend’s house. He’s tricked out the entertainment space with a huge concrete bar, handcrafted tables and chairs, and a big wood-fired oven. He shows “Big Night” or “The Life Aquatic” on the flat-screen TVs. And he plays a ’80s playlist on Spotify, which he edits on the fly.
Oh, and he’s a really good cook.
Fortina is the hip Italian restaurant in Armonk, opened in May 2013 by John Nealon, Rob Krauss and Christian Petroni, the former chef at the now-closed Peniche in White Plains (an old favorite of mine) and Barcelona Wine & Tapas Bar in Greenwich, Conn. The trio carved out a new space in Armonk Square, decorating it with charred cypress walls and subway tiles, and filling it with 20- and 30-somethings, young families and foodies from all over Westchester.
The menu is an homage to old-fashioned Italian-American cooking, full of nostalgia for childhood favorites like red sauce and tartufo, the ice cream treat with a dark chocolate shell and a maraschino cherry in the center.
One evening, I was able to sneak in for a glass of wine and an appetizer at the bar, and found the service professional and welcoming, and the burrata silky and delicious. But on my most recent visit, I was recognized the moment I walked in, and was invited to sit at the chef’s table, a marble half-circle at the far end of the bar room that overlooks chef Jodi Bernhard as she expedites dishes. You can’t reserve the chef’s table, but it doesn’t hurt to ask to sit there when you arrive. It makes for a really fun evening, just like that cool party might be.
What we tried
Milky and sweet, atop an Italian peasant bread that’s crispy on the outside with big, chewy air pockets on the inside. It’s topped with a sprinkling of arugula and a changing seasonal ingredient, which right now is butternut squash. The dish is then finished with vin cotto — handmade by Petroni’s father — and brown butter, nutty and sweet.
Comes with old-school Grissini bread sticks and a few pear slices sprinkled with black pepper. The ham has a great funk, and salty (ham), sweet (pears) and spicy (pepper) are always good bedfellows.
Wood-roasted bone marrow:
Spread over fettunta (a rustic garlic bread) with (a heck of a lot of) parsley and a sprinkling of sea salt, a decadent mouthful indeed. Glad we were sharing!
Baby carrots, cauliflower, fennel and onion and Fresno chilies, taste like the garden dashed with vinegar and herbs, and give your mouth a one-two punch with their hard crunch and acidic bite. A great foil for the fatty burrata.
Cauliflower with hazelnut romeseco:
Charred on the outside and sweet on the inside, with good crunch and a little kick from Fresno chili and smoked pimentón at the end.
Carrots with walnut crema:
The carrots had a nice bite without being too hard. Walnut sauce can be gritty if you don’t have the patience to do it right. This version was perfectly smooth, and delicious.
The Luigi Bianco pizza:
With burrata, Parmesan, black truffle and robiolona (a soft, fresh goat cheese from Piemonte), this is one rich dish. Eat it sparingly.
San Gennaro pizza:
You know those sausage and peppers sandwiches you get on seeded bread from the trucks at the San Gennaro festival? That. On pizza! One of the most creative new takes on a classic dish I’ve had in a long time.
The edges of the big, tube-shaped pasta are charred crispy in the oven, and the center of the dish is smothered in a rich, creamy vodka-bechamel sauce. Poke around to find little veal meatballs hiding inside. Loved this.
Whole wheat cavatelli:
Owner Rob Krauss tells me this is his favorite dish, but unfortunately it wasn’t ours. The sausage ragu was meaty, buttery and full of umami, but the cavatelli, sort of like ricotta gnocchi, were a bit too dense.
Crisp on the outside, light as air on the inside. Perfect.
Drinks and dessert
The wine list is divided into sections by style (light, medium, full bodied) and has many Italian selections, including lots by the glass. Most are well priced ($36-$60 a bottle) but there is also a more expensive reserve list, with a couple of Barolos and first growth Bordeaux. The excellent beer list has hard-to-find craft beers, like Dead Guy Ale, and more familiar East Coast brews like Allagash and Ithaca. The cocktail list is fantastically diverse: classic cocktails (Aviations! Negronis!) and new-fangled fun ones, too. We tried the Maple Ave Cider (rye and apple cider with maple-cinnamon syrup and cardamom bitters) and the Old Glory (like a bourbon Old Fashioned).
Desserts are creamy, cold and classic. The tortoni, with almond crunchies, reminds you of the bar you get out of the window of a Good Humor truck.
One friend couldn’t believe there was a classic tartufo on the menu. She hadn’t seen one since the 1980s. It was terrific.
Dads in charge of the kids for the night, families out for a celebration, women catching up with friends, couples on dates, 20-somethings out for the bar scene and anyone who loves a good red sauce. Despite how big it is, the bar can get very crowded — three deep sometimes — but it’s not a late scene. The restaurant closes at 11.
If Armonk is a bit of a hike for you, don’t fret: I hear the boys are looking to open something down-county sooner rather than later. Now if we can just convince them to come to Rockland.
What we will order next
We didn’t get to try the wood-fired entrees. I love a good roasted chicken, and the market fish with potato, onion, fennel and cherry tomato sounds terrific, too.
Armonk is truly becoming a foodie destination, what with the new DeCicco’s next to Fortina, Restaurant North around the corner and the new Zero Otto Nove opening down the road in the summer. And Wine Geeks, just out of town in a renovated old gas station (industrial-chic!) is a terrific shop to find a bottle you’ve never heard of, chosen by Derek Todd, former wine director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and his wife, Carol.
The 411 on Fortina
Entree price range: $15-$30.
Great for: Big Groups, Date Night, Solo Dining, Excellent Desserts, Seasonal Menu, Craft Beer, Brunch, Cocktails, Dining at the Bar, Fireplace, Girls’ Night Out, Kid Friendly, Meeting for a Drink, Open Kitchen, Going Out on Mondays, People Watching, Singles Scene, Small Plates, Vegetarians, Wine List
Noise level: Loud.
Hours: Noon-2:30 p.m. light menu 2:30-5, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, till 11 p.m. Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday. Sunday brunch Noon-2:30 p.m. Dinner: 5-9 p.m.
Go: 17 Maple Ave, Armonk. 914-273-0900, fortinapizza.com.