Restaurant review: Short North's Forno has style to burn

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Aptly named after the Italian word for oven, Forno Kitchen + Bar isthe "hot" new restaurant du jour in the Short North.

You might've anticipated its heated arrival if you've visited always-a-party Short North Pint House, Forno's persistently packed sister business. Forno's cooking is much more ambitious.

This is signaled when you first step in and witness flames dancing throughout the showy centerpiece of Forno's open kitchen - a barrel-shaped brass oven nearly seven feet tall. Surrounding this is a huge wraparound bar that connects the snazzy but casual establishment's warm and cool sides.

On the restaurant's right, bright orange accents, gargantuan lamp shades and people-watching windows set an upbeat tone. On the left, icy blue hues and mirrors engender a more "chill" atmosphere.

Forno's popular happy hour is a hot ticket - and it's currently the best one in the Short North. During that bonanza (4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday), a wealth of alluring drinks, appetizers and pizzas are half-priced.

This includes lots of wines, Ohio drafts ($3 during happy hour), Italian craft beers, plus cocktails ($4.50 during happy hour). From the latter, the grown-up Apple Manhattan highlighted OYO whiskey with nifty preserved fruit and cinnamon hints. The tart and citrusy Basil Collins tightened Watershed gin with Lillet Blanc's mild quinine notes.

Food-wise, Forno offers so many usual suspects you could probably recite its extensive menu without looking at it. But what reads as potentially forgettable fare becomes food made memorable through skillful cooking performed with flare. Portions are often generous and values are fantastic for happy hour specials, when most "shared items" are $5.50.

This includes the House-Cured Pork Belly, with flavors and textures as appealing as its graceful plating. Crisp slabs of meat were flattered by pickled purple cabbage, dollops of pureed sweet butternut squash, flecks of pickled fennel and micro-greens.

Ahi Tuna Tacos cradled plenty of sushi-style fish cubes in crunchy fried wonton shells. The quartet was brightened by lime, soothed by crema and avocado and textured by sea salt and a fine Napa slaw.

Sporting creamy interiors and crackly exteriors, Forno's filling Arancini were also pleasing. Accentuating the ungreasy orbs was a simple but flavorful San Marzano tomato sauce.

Like the oven they're baked in - which ostensibly reaches 750 degrees - pizzas take center stage. The Italian-style (aka "artisanal") pies are $6 to $7.50 during happy hour, and don't disappoint.

Arriving with attractive chars on their toasty edges, the crispy discs boast crusts that are thin yet sturdy. Forno's toppings are applied with restraint, and can create options like the veggie-heavy Garden (peppers, asparagus, artichokes and arugula), the sweet and fiery Hawaiian (jalapeno, capicola, rosemary, garlic and pineapple), and my favorite, the herby and meaty Carne (red onion, zesty pepperoni, sausage crumbles, thick capicola strips). Try them with a House Italian ($9) - an old-school pizzeria-style salad upgraded with ricotta salata, good olives and a zippy dressing.

Moving onto entrees, the Petit Filet ($27) outpaced many steakhouses with its phenomenal crust, uncommonly tender and juicy beef and garlicky red wine demi-glace. Adding value are crisply roasted potatoes (with rosemary and Parmesan) and thin asparagus spears.

Forno's perfectly cooked Salmon ($21) was no slouch either. Served in an iron skillet, the fish was adorned with a crisp-as-a-chip ribbon cleverly made from the fillet's removed skin. The delicious dish included black lentils, roasted root vegetables and a sweet red pepper sauce. It's plenty of food, but if sharing a side, the seared Brussels sprouts (browned butter, rosemary, Parmesan) is an excellent choice.

The National Champion Buckeye Cheesecake ($7), flavored like the famous candy and made by the mother of a Forno owner, is a cool finish to a dinner at a hot new place.