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  • Writer's picturePaige Latham Didora

eat & drink il foro

Il Foro now occupies one of the most incredible indoor spaces you probably have never heard about.

The dining room has an extensive history as the Forum Cafeteria, for which it was known over several decades. The restaurant opened in 1930 on Seventh Street downtown in what was once part of the Saxe Theater, built in 1914. The restaurant was an huge success, so much so that it was tediously and lovingly moved into its current space within City Center. After the Forum days, the vast dining room played host to a handful of other restaurants, which were all comparatively short-lived. Most recently was Forum (the modern version) which was open in 2010 and 2011.

il foro dining

The space is a breathtaking masterpiece in the Art Deco style. So classic, in fact, that it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is hard to describe, and even difficult to capture via photograph. The pale greens and pinks are so textbook while the chandeliers and mirrors make the whole place gleam without broaching gaudy. Moreover, a delicate theme of wheat and pine cone grounds the place between the nature of the northwoods and its big city address. I suggest you pay the place a visit the next time you find yourself downtown.

And if not for the architecture, stop by for a cocktail or dinner.

I visited with my family on our way to America’s Test Kitchen Live (mistake) so we weren’t there to linger as we are oft to do. Here are the notes on one round of drinks and a light dinner.

cocktails il foro

The theme at Il Foro is Modern Italian. This applies to the kitchen as well as the bar, which serves a duo of Negronis, an Aperol Spritz, and a twist on the French classic, called the Tuscan 75. Made with Bloom Gin, basil, lemon, and prosecco, the variation doesn’t stray too far from the classic. A pleasant basil and citrus character blossoms in the aroma and the mouth, but a drier prosecco may serve this combination better as it is quite sweet overall.

The Saxe Old Fashioned was slightly less successful, only due to the crushed ice in the glass. The drink became thin and weak within minutes of service.  It really seemed like a terrible decision, as much as I have been known to roll my eyes at the phrase “ice program”. After requesting one without ice, it was marvelous. The intensity of the cherry was authentic and potent while the Amaro added bitterness and complexity.

Our server, Greg, was very knowledgeable and prompt. Recommendations included meatballs (how Italian), polenta, porchetta, and bruschetta.

The most successful small bites were indeed the bruchetta – it was a toss up between the charred broccoli version and the one topped with giardiniera. The bite of the pickled vegetables paired with the creamy bean spread made the latter the winner to me. It was the perfect counterpoint to the Tuscan 75.

The meatballs were divine, too, with an incredibly light texture from the addition of ricotta. Opinions were mixed on the house marinara. Those leaning in the fresh direction, with an affinity for crushed tomatoes that don’t get messed with much, will be pleased. Others may seek more depth of flavor, the essence of grandma-stirring-a-pot-for-hours.

Giardiniera Bruschetta

All pastas are made in house, as you might imagine, and they range from the classic – fennel with kale, pomodoro – to the creative.

In this case, the classics were far more successful.

Avoid the Spaghetti Nero and Clams, made with with marinara, pepperoni, jalapeno, and squid-ink pasta. Although the noodles were perfectly cooked, the combination didn’t come together. The jalapeno overpowered the clams, and the pepperoni was sliced as if its rightful destination was pizza. Had the meat been cubed and the clams allowed to shine, this dish could have been more appealing. The black pasta, which I was looking forward to, was surprisingly gimmicky as it added nothing to the poor presentation. It felt like a late-night pantry raid of ingredients.

pumpkin agnolotti

Despite a miss or two, this really was a wonderful meal. The expression of modern Italian is broad but focused, and approachable. With porchetta being a feature item, Il Foro is like the “turf” to Monello’s “surf”, putting downtown on the Italian food map.

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