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Al forno is an Italian phrase that translates to English as “at or from the oven,” and is used to describe foods such as breads, pasta, casseroles or pizza that are often baked in an oven. In the most conventional sense, the referenced oven is made of brick, fueled by wood and distinguished by a heavy, arched, hinged door. Some al forno style restaurants use charcoal along with the wood to increase the temperature to the highest possible levels frequently preferred to bake pizzas and artisan breads. A large, thin wooden paddle called a peel is customarily used to safely slide pizzas and breads in and out of the fiery hot receptacle.
Authentic Italian restaurants frequently boast the superiority of authentic wood-fired brick ovens, also customarily referred to as furnaces. Some provide historical documentation proving the bricks and sometimes the entire oven was imported from Italy to create genuine Italian cuisine. A significant number of modern Italian restaurants are outfitted with modern electric ovens that simulate the traditional al forno effect with internal mechanisms that mimic the smokiness and intense heat of wood-fired brick ovens.
In recent years, al forno has also been used to describe pasta dishes that are finished off in the oven and prepared with al dente pasta, which is cooked until it's just firm and not yet soft. Generally considered the perfect doneness for pasta, the al dente stage means the pasta should offer a delicate resistance when bitten into rather than be overcooked and provide no resistance. A fabled way to test pasta for the correct stage of cooking is to throw a strand or small piece of it against a wall. Rumor has it that if it sticks, it is ready to eat; if it falls, it is considered overcooked, discarded and replaced with a freshly and properly cooked batch.
Since the term al forno gained popularity, it has been incorporated into the names of numerous pasta recipes. Lasagna al forno and casserole ziti al forno are two of the most common dishes that have the term applied to them. The flavors of these entrees are generally enhanced by high temperature baking that creates a crispy top layer. Pasta cooked in this style is also commonly prepared with fewer steps than the traditional recipes to generate more conventional home-style results.
A dish simply called Al Forno has recently gained acclaim at numerous Italian restaurants. Slight variations in the ingredients are common, but the original version calls for a mixture of tomato sauce, canned chopped tomatoes, chopped fresh carrots and onions, minced garlic, frozen peas, rigatoni pasta, mozzarella, oregano, salt and pepper. Some recipes suggest adding a bit of cooked ground beef for texture.