Il Vecchio Forno
1277 E. Jericho Tpke., Huntington
SERVICE: Warm but erratic; leave plenty of time to dine
AMBIENCE: Casual and intimate, somewhere between a classic pizzeria and a bistro
ESSENTIALS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible; ample parking but some of it in an uneven dirt lot.
In many restaurants, the sound of a cart rolling up to your table usually means one of two things: You’re about to be offered dim sum, or dessert. At Il Vecchio Forno, which opened in Huntington this spring, the squeak of wheels means pizza. Specifically, an oblong wood-fired pie that can extend the length of a baseball bat, if you wish.
Pizza by the meter (or pizza al metro) is the central motif of Il Vecchio Forno — which means “the old oven” in Italian — but this offbeat place also proffers some intriguing antipasti, seafood and pasta that exude soulfulness but are still finding their footing.
Il Vecchio Forno has an unusual back story: Its owners, Dominic Biancamano and Natalie Roman, also import Italian olive oil, cheeses, pastas and meat. (In other words, go for the salumi board — it’s loaded.) Their chef, Pasquale Conte, hails from the southern Italian province of Basilicata, upping the bona-fide-Italian quotient. Conte brings an original sensibility to the non-pizza dishes here, which are served in one of those classically narrow pizzerias (in a former life, Viajo’s) with a pizza-making area to one side and a handful of tables on the other. The space feels casual and the service is genuinely warm, but you need time and patience to dine here: Waits for drinks (beer and wine, with scant by-the-glass choices) and food can be long. Orders are forgotten, the wrong dishes arrive, and there can be long waits between courses.
Initially, those waits — at least during my first two visits — were eased by a complimentary antipasto of bruschetta, as well as toasts draped with melted scamorza, a sort of tangier and firmer mozzarella. That whetter later disappeared, but there is plenty of the crusty, dense, nearly saltless bread that’s baked in house and perks to life when dragged through olive oil or sauce.
Back to the pizza. While ordering a meter is tempting, even a half-meter is a lot of pizza. (For one or two, consider a personal pie of more modest proportions.) The dough is tasty: chewy, edged with char marks from the wood-fired oven, and when at its best, crisp along the bottom. The margherita pizza, in particular, has a vibrant tomato sauce so soft as to be almost gentle, and (on one night) generous blotches of fresh fior di latte, or cows’-milk mozzarella, as well as a few leaves of basil.
A few weeks later, after Il Vecchio Forno’s initial pizzaiolo had left, the fresh mozz atop the margherita had shrunk to a few snow-white dots, while the rest of the cheese was slightly rubbery. The middle of the pies had grown soggy, too. Even so, I’d return for the salt-umami bomb called capricciosa — with prosciutto, fior di latte, capers and olives — or the fume, whose surface is an ocean of smoked mozzarella dotted with speck.
Some fantastic early dishes were sadly purged from the menu after two visits, such as steamed littleneck clams in a bacon-dotted broth, or roasted artichokes with a haunting trace of sourness. In their places, though, some master strokes appeared, such as a platter of slivered and cured fish — tuna, anchovies, swordfish and salmon — with the texture of satin and a sheath of citrus vinaigrette. I also polished off a garlicky crock of sliced, tender octopus tossed with cherry tomatoes and basil, even though I hadn’t ordered it.
Some of Conte’s pasta preparations are unusual, if not always harmonious. Paccheri — short, fat tubes in a pool of melted burrata dotted with shrimp — sounded promising, but the tide of cheese overwhelmed all other flavors. It was eclipsed by a supple house ravioli filled with ricotta and mint in a chunky, fresh tomato sauce. The kitchen’s pasta fagioli was less like soup and more akin to a chunky stew, much too heavy for summer but worth a revisit when the weather turns cooler.
Of main courses, seared tuna steaks drizzled with olive oil, and served with a beguiling mound of marinated eggplant, won my heart — but a veal chop pounded flat and fried “elephant-ear” style, was overcooked and dry.
Desserts are made here and visible in a glass case near the front. You have to be persistent to land some, though: One night, the slow service pushed the meal so late that dessert wasn’t offered. On another, the waiter leaned in conspiratorially to whisper, “No,” when we asked for dessert. When we finally scored some torta della nonna — a crumbly grandma’s cake of almonds, lemons and a layer of custard — it felt like a score.