Shortly after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2014, Robert Kelleher, chef/owner of Al Forno Pizza, was scrolling through Instagram when the account for a mobile, wood-fired pizza oven caught his attention. The idea appealed to him, so he pocketed it for a later date.
After working at various restaurants throughout the Hudson Valley, Kelleher decided to put his plan into action this spring. Shortly after that, he teamed up with Chris Crocco, owner of the Beacon Daily. The operation hit a turning point when Crocco informed Kelleher that the Hudson Valley Brewery was looking for a new resident food vendor.
“I feel like pizza is kind of a blank canvas,” explains Kelleher, who fell in love with pizza making while working at Mill House Brewing Company. Kelleher and Crocco promptly got to work, acquiring two ovens from Brewster-based Fiero, one for the brewery and one for their mobile truck. By Memorial Day weekend, they were up and running in the back patio of the brewery, where they will remain for the rest of the summer, and headed to locations across the Hudson Valley for pop-up events.
“It's been amazing, we couldn't ask for a better partnership,” says Kelleher with regards to the Hudson Valley Brewery. “They help us, we help them.” This sentiment is echoed by the brewery’s founder, John-Anthony Gargiulo. “We are very lucky to have people with high-volume restaurant experience,” he says, “Having them here keeps the customers here.”
The partnership is part of a growing trend at craft beverage destinations, where food vendors are brought in to attract a wider range of customers, and benefit from the built-in customer base. This symbiotic relationship has worked exceptionally well for Hudson Valley Brewery and Al Forno, who is able to keep up with the brewery’s high volume customer base.
Each pizza earns its place on the menu after Kelleher experiments with various ingredients at home until reaching perfection. The current menu is composed of six pizzas, each of which I had the opportunity to try. What made the food so memorable was the quality and freshness of the toppings. The best example of this was in the lightly cooked bunches of fresh spinach on the Ragazza Bianca ($17), and the cherry tomatoes which are roasted just enough to soften the skin and heat the center without losing the satisfying burst of biting into a fresh tomato. My personal favorite aligned with Garguilo’s top recommendation, “We are the Champignons,” ($17) who’s creamy combination of whipped Ricotta and creme fraiche evened out the strong flavors of the herb roasted mushrooms piled on top. Kelleher’s classic recommendation of the Paulie’s Pepperoni ($17) was another stand out menu item, with thick pepperoni that curls into a bowl to collect the delicious oils of the pizza. On Crocco's recommendation, I topped it with Mike’s Hot Honey and extra red pepper flakes. “We're not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Crocco, “It’s simple ingredients.”
The dough is made using a blend of flour from Italian miller Caputo, as well as the freshly milled flour from Cairnspring Mills in Washington. The sauce is from Bianco Dinapoli, made with vine-ripened, organically farmed tomatoes from Northern California. “It’s the best tomato sauce I've tried, and I’ve tried over four dozen,” says Kelleher. All produce and herbs used by Al Forno are farm-fresh and local, sourced through the Farm2Table app.
Just like the food, the outdoor seating area has a clean and simple aesthetic. Upbeat indie-rock music subtly sets the tone, while customers sip beers and eat at picnic tables illuminated by crisscrossing string lights. Shade is provided by large triangular sun sails, artfully stretched between the wall of the brewery and the fence that separates the patio from the parking area. The pizza is made where all can see it, at the back of the patio in the sleek black oven. This oven is made to hold up to four pizzas at one time, while the second oven, located in Al Forno’s truck, can cook two.
Kelleher and Crocco have catered at a number of locations throughout the Hudson Valley since opening in late May, an experience that they love. The freedom and opportunity of a restaurant on wheels greatly appeals to Kelleher, and lies at the heart of Al Forno. “If you are in a brick and mortar, you are locked into the same views, the same clientele,” says Kelleher. “There's nothing like making pizza in the Catskill Mountains or on the beach in Montauk.”