The long, attractive bar at Fortina in Rye Brook is a popular gathering spot and, as with all new restaurants, is usually packed with diners. Richard Abel|Westmore News
The long, attractive bar at Fortina in Rye Brook is a popular gathering spot and, as with all new restaurants, is usually packed with diners.

Richard Abel|Westmore News
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About a year after Racanelli's Pizzeria Restaurant closed its doors without notice, Fortina is bringing a whole new vibe and renewed energy to its former space at the Rye Ridge Shopping Center.

Fortina, which opened Jan. 5, is the cool new spot in Rye Brook everyone wants to try, especially those who have never experienced its older sibling in Armonk which was born in mid-2013. With the Armonk restaurant's success, best friends Christian Petroni, the chef; Rob Kraus and John Nealon, the latter two having attended high school together in Westport, Conn., decided to branch out to a second location. Rye Brook was the lucky beneficiary. A third Fortina is scheduled to open in Stamford in late summer.

The three partners, all 30 or 31, have the restaurant business in their blood and experience in the food industry from a young age. Petroni and Nealon worked together at Barcelona where Petroni was the chef and a partner and Nealon was the general manager when they decided they wanted to open a restaurant together. While the partners take their business seriously, they also know how to have fun, and they want their customers to come along for the joy ride.

"At the end of the day there is pizza, pasta, meatballs, garlic bread, steak, chicken and fish," Kraus said in explaining the Fortina menu back in September when the Rye Brook location was under construction. "While kid-friendly, it also provides adults with some different options that you can't get at a pizzeria."

Fortina is a sophisticated Italian bistro known for its pies and main courses cooked in wood-fired ovens. There is also pasta made on the premises by Arturo Linguini, whose equipment comes from Italy; lovely burrata (Italian cheese made with mozzarella and cream which they get from California) preparations; and fabulous house made desserts. Not much is ordinary here.

The modern, yet rustic space in the front of the shopping center at 136 South Ridge St. has been completely opened up so it has little resemblance to its predecessor. It is at first attractive, on second glance minimalistic, and as you look more closely you notice lots of interesting touches.

"We want it to be warm and fun but pretty minimalistic with nice little talking points," Nealon explained.

A happening place

There's no doubt Fortina is a happening place, and I had read a complaint online about a long wait and no reservations. The first time I planned to visit with my family on a Friday night, I called ahead and was told to get there by 6. When we arrived closer to 6:30, there was already a wait, which ended up close to an hour.

There were many people having drinks or even eating at the long burnt wood and stone bar, which seats 15.

"At all new restaurants the bars are packed with diners," Nealon said. "We did it and served the full menu at the bar from day one. It's a thing."

There was plenty to look at, and one in our party had to be picked up at 7 at the Port Chester train station, so the wait didn't seem too onerous.

I later learned that Fortina takes a limited number of reservations, enough to fill 25% of the restaurant, which seats 105 in the dining room. "If you call a week in advance, there is no issue," Nealon said. "We try to make the place accommodating to both. We want to be that place you can come to on a whim."

The next time I opted for a Thursday and to go after 8 p.m., and there was no wait. We got to sit in the back of the restaurant, which I found cozier and more pleasant than in the front next to the bar where we sat the first time. It was still pretty noisy but not objectionable.

Italian specialties

Specialties at Fortina include fried meatballs and burrata on a thick slice of fettunta (grilled bread rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt) with a seasonal topping, currently pickled delicate squash, lots of watercress, brown butter and vinocotto (cooked wine syrup). The burrata ($18) is creamy and fresh-tasting with a nice blend of flavors and textures. Firm on the outside, the fried meatballs ($13 for four) must be cut with a knife, but they are soft and flavorful (not bland like so many meatballs) on the inside and are served in a delicious tomato ragu with parmesan cheese.

Their signature pie is Luigi Bianco, a white three-cheese pizza made with burrata, robiola and parmesan topped with a black truffle paté ($21). This pie is sinfully creamy, rich and delicious!

On our second visit we ordered the satisfying all' amatriciana ($16) pizza topped with tomato, smoked bacon, red onion, chili, pecorino and mozzarella and also a prosciutto pie ($18) topped with plentiful pieces of the thinly sliced, dry-cured ham, mozzarella, tomato, arugula and olives.

Fortina's pizza is Neapolitan style, "but Christian created his own dough, so it is an 11-inch pie," Kraus said. It is cooked in a Neapolitan Marra Forni woodburning oven with the name Lila Rose spelled out in black tiles. Christian ordered it that way from Marra Forni's shop in Maryland as a surprise to John. Lila Rose is his 5-month-old daughter. The pizza, cut into six slices, is thin, light and much more crispy than Neapolitan, especially the outside crust which is ripe for dipping in marinara sauce. The latter can be had for the asking.

Dinner for four

On our second visit I ordered a Rye Tai ($13) from among the list of 15 cocktails, a good blend of 12-year El Dorado rum, orange curacao, Orzata, lime, a slice of orange and decorated with a little green umbrella.

My party of four shared the burrata; the Bibb Salad ($13), large pieces of delicately flavored Bibb lettuce combined with thinly sliced apples in a white vinaigrette; the amatriciana and prosciutto pizzas and the Wood-Fired Polpo ($16) served in a robust salumi anchovy vinaigrette accompanied by white beans and olives. The octopus was soft, not too chewy as it sometimes can be, with a smoky flavor created in the wood-fired, self-contained Josper oven, one of only three in the U. S., according to Nealon.

I had the Wood-Roasted Bronzino ($29), a fileted mild, sweet, delicate fish with crispy skin served on top of wheat berries and a root vegetable agrodolce, chopped carrots and other root vegetables in a traditional Italian sweet and sour sauce, more sour than sweet in my estimation. This dish produced a nice combination of textures and flavors.

With three coffees ($9), our check totaled $137.44.

Decadent desserts

Be sure to save room for dessert because Fortina has an amazing selection of desserts, many I had never had before, which range in price from $5 to $15. The Ciocalata Densa ($8) was my favorite. This super dense chocolate pudding is chilled and mixed with crumbled, crunchy ammaretti cookies, olive oil and sea salt. To die for!

The Affogato ($8), a real pick me up, contains a shot of espresso; the light, creamy tiramisu ($8) is Christian's mother's recipe; and the Malted Soft Serve "Fiore di Latte" ($15) is a decadent combination of zabaglione, pieces of pannetone (Italian Christmas cake) and brunt citrus caramel, the zabaglione stuffed inside a large, crunchy ice cream cone lying on its side.

If you just can't get enough pizza, there is also an amazingly light and crunchy Nutella and marshmallow variety sprinkled with powdered sugar which is not on the menu.

Wine list

Covering the back of the large paper menu is the list of cocktails, beers and reasonably priced wines. "We provide value," said Nealon of the wine list. "We want to make it approachable, interesting, unique, mostly Italian." With one of our meals we had a bottle of the 2009 Grignano, Chianti Rufina from Tuscany ($10/glass, $40/bottle) which was full bodied, rich, spicy and sumptuous as described. I like the way the wines are divided by category with descriptions over each so you know what you're getting if they are not familiar.

Other menu items

My party's least favorite selections on our two visits were the pastas ($15) and especially my choice, the fusilli with tomato, onion, smoked bacon and chili flakes. The spiciness of the sauce overpowered the delicate pasta, and there was too much of it.

Besides antipasti, pizza, primi (pastas) and four secondi (main courses), a variety of vegetables can be ordered separately such as giardinera (seasonal pickled veggies at $6), broccoli rabe ($8) and wood-fired baby carrots with walnut crema and pecorino ($9). They sound mouth-watering although I haven't had the chance to try any yet. You can also enjoy a selection of Italian cold cuts and Italian cheeses listed under the category salumi e formaggi ($11 per choice, $19 for three, $29 for five).

Unique service

The service at Fortina is exceptional and definitely unique. From the hosts and hostesses, to the bartenders, captains, waiters and servers, the staff is courteous, helpful and upbeat. That is by design. The waiters are casually dressed, even sit down with you to take your order if there is space. They are enthusiastic without being in your face.

"We have a lot of interested, hungry young restaurant people who work for us," Nealon said. "We have a wonderful core group who really love service." The partners' philosophy is to "hire nice people with good attitudes who want to have fun and enjoy working." When we visited to take photos on a late Saturday afternoon, an extended staff meeting was taking place to build up morale and prepare the staff for the busy Saturday night ahead, answering questions about how to deal with any issues that might have previously arisen.

Specials, seasonal changes

The dated menu changes every day at Fortina. "We update the menu every day and that gives us flexibility and the ability to have some fun with it," said Nealon. As far as daily specials, he said "we may bring something in for a day, use it and never bring it back again."

On the topic of seasonality, Nealon said they make great seasonal salads and the burrata changes with the seasons. "We make a couple quick adjustments," he said, rather than a complete changeover.

Valentine's Day

With Valentine's Day coming up on Saturday, Feb. 14, why not give Fortina a try? "We do a special menu with luxury items if you want it, but you can also get the regular a la carte menu," Nealon said. The chef will be bringing a bunch of special dishes out for that night, but as of press time, Nealon didn't know what they would be.

He recommends you try to make a reservation, but basically Fortina will have the same policy of only reserving 25% of the restaurant on Valentine's Day as they do every other night.

Eclectic décor

Yes, it's minimalistic, but there was actually a great deal of thought put into the eclectic décor at Fortina, which was designed by partners Petroni, Kraus and Nealon.

When they looked at the former Racanelli's space, they knew they could do something there if they could open it up and remove the drop ceiling. They hung around for a day and saw a lot of people hanging out and eating at the shopping center and felt good about it.

Besides the long, attractive bar which is a focal point as you enter, on the opposite wall your eyes are drawn to the vibrant chalk art murals drawn by Nealon's aunt, Dee Dee Mannix. "It is as much a part of our look in Armonk as anything else," said Nealon. "This is a more psychedelic version." Besides many octopi in a variety of colors on a black background with the Fortina logo in the middle, numerous other images are incorporated into the design such as the artichoke that is a tattoo on Christian's arm, the large cans of tomatoes that appear all around the restaurant, Blinky, a fish from The Simpsons, Godzilla, the three faces of the owners, a ship, a friend on a gondola and the red moon from "Luna Rosa," an Italian love song.

There is burnt wood in the front of the restaurant, subway tile behind the bar, wainscoting, and some old features that were there such as exposed cinderblock and a concrete strip on the floor where a wall had been. The walls and drop ceiling were blown out and a skylight exposed, the only one in the shopping center.

The black and white tile floor remains from Racanelli's which Nealon said is his favorite part of the space. They also kept a couple of large pizza counters.

A guy in Yonkers made the burnt wood tables and chairs as well as the wooden benches which provide much of the seating area at the back of the restaurant. The chairs, made from slat of wood, look nice but aren't exactly comfortable.

Giant tomato cans are used to hold extra silverware, as a pizza stand on individual tables, fill shelves at the back of the restaurant and help create the host/hostess stand at the front of the house.

I would not have noticed without being told, but there are also lots of little Pinocchio figures placed in various locations around the restaurant.

Bare bulbs hang over the bar while custom-made round fixtures hang from what look like timeworn boards suspended from the tall ceiling. Lighting is kept low and is supplemented by small candles on each table.

There are wood shingles around the kitchen and covering the hallway leading to unisex bathrooms with barn-style doors that slide sideways. Signed pictures of famous people hang in the hallway and bathrooms, a spoof on old restaurants like Sardi's.

Posters from movies the partners love and one of Christian's Uncle Louis smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee figure prominently in the restaurant. Christian, who is from the Bronx, spent his summers in Ponza, Italy with Uncle Louis growing up. Uncle Louis' image is also reproduced on the menus if you can make it out.

The two small TVs over the bar always have a Wes Anderson or some other iconic movie playing if there isn't a big game on. I noticed "Big" and "Beetlejuice" playing during my visits.

Music is loud but not offensive as an excellent sound system plays classic tunes everyone can appreciate including a group of young girls at a birthday party who were singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

Hours

Fortina is open every day except Saturday from noon to 10 p. m. unless you call ahead and they will stay open later. On Saturday, the restaurant is open only for dinner from 5 p. m. to close. Lunch is served Monday through Friday and on Sunday it is replaced with brunch. There are a handful of breakfast items as well as pizza and Fortina's other Italian specialties on the brunch menu.

At first the partners were worried this Fortina might be too close to the one in Armonk, but they have gotten lots of people coming in from Rye Brook, Port Chester and Purchase, so after a month they are feeling good about their decision to invest at Rye Ridge.