Roosevelt Row was recently recognized as a “Great Place” by the American Planning Association. The distinction, which focuses on factors such as walkability, multimodal transport, and community gathering places, is a validation of the transformation of East Roosevelt from Central to Seventh Street. The quieter side of Roosevelt west of First Avenue hasn’t received as much attention, but that may be changing with planned bike lanes and new development. One new arrival is Forno 301, named for its address at the corner of Roosevelt and Third Avenue.
The location is three blocks west of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. The restaurant occupies a storefront most easily recognized by the sign across the alley for the office of Senator Dennis DeConcini. Yes, he’s the senator whose time in Congress ended more than two decades ago. Maybe the strangely out-of-date sign is just another bit of historic preservation or a puzzle to be contemplated after a few glasses of wine on Forno 301’s comfortable patio. A bike rack is situated to the side of the small outdoor dining area.
Inside, Forno 301 is a bit of a shoebox, stretching back from the entrance with a bar on one side and tables on the other, and widening only when it reaches the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. There, customers can see the wood-fired pizza oven, one of many found around Downtown Phoenix, which has become a somewhat unexpected hotbed of Neapolitan pizza in recent years. Forno 301’s pies lack the soupy center sometimes associated with the Neapolitan style. Instead, the pizza has an even crust that is quite good in its own right.
There are 10 pizzas on the menu, all prepared with combinations of traditional Italian toppings, whether cured meats, vegetables, or cheeses. The Heirloom is a fresh, salad-like pizza with toppings of sliced raw tomato and arugula leaves applied after its brief time in the oven. The Quattro Stagioni pizza is a meatless but hearty pie topped with salty black olives, prosciutto, artichokes, and mushrooms. Meatier options include the Sporcacciona with four different types of salumi: prosciutto, bacon, salami, and sausage, as well as the Testosterone with prosciutto and two eggs on top.
The namesake 301 pizza might be seen as the restaurant’s workhorse. It’s a satisfying mix of onions, mozzarella, sausage, and mushrooms over fresh tomato sauce. Bruschetta and salads are similarly named for the numerals in the restaurant’s name and address: 3, 0, and 1. In each case, the zero option might be seen as the default choice in terms of being the most familiar combination of ingredients. That means creamy burrata with halved grape tomatoes and slivers of basil on toasted bread; for the salad it means lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, and goat cheese.
The “one” salad shows a slight Greek influence with cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta, and the “one” bruschetta combines cream of broccoli, salty pecorino cheese, and fatty bacon. The “three” options have elements of fruit: figs with gorgonzola and prosciutto top the bruschetta, and pears are paired with almonds and parmesan in the salad. The panini are likewise numbered: Mozzarella, prosciutto, and tomato in the three; turkey, avocado, and provolone in the zero; and sausage, mushrooms, and onions in the one. All come on crusty bread cut and are cut in quarters.
An antipasto plate of cured meats, cheese, and vegetables just received a promotion to the regular menu after starting as a special. The eggplant parmigiana has followed a similar path. It’s an effective appetizer or side dish with its layers of breaded aubergine, melted cheese, and tomato sauce. Since it’s not paired with pasta, though, it’s too small to serve as an entree. Forno 301 has experimented with pasta dishes and other non-pizza entrees. Most days, there’s a pasta special such as pillowy cheese ravioli in a light meat ragu. More specials are planned as the menu grows.
Forno 301’s bar is full in the sense that it offers beer, wine, and cocktails. It is also, however, quite small so expected a limited selection of each. Wine is usually just one white and one red, along with a sparkling prosecco, offered by the glass and by the bottle. Bottled beers include Italian selections like Moretti La Rossa. For dessert, the tiramisu and the creme brulee are both classic selections offered every day. A chocolate torte has made frequent guest appearances a special, and it’s a dense, moist, and ultimately worthwhile indulgence.
It should be emphasized that Forno 301 is a small neighborhood place with a relaxed pace and feel. Most front-of-the-house tasks are handled by a gregarious gentleman named Roberto, who will chat with customers as much they can handle. His two partners are generally in the kitchen, producing the pizza and virtually everything else by hand. The daytime music in the restaurant can sometimes include too much overwrought ‘80s R&B or insipid smooth jazz, but at night, the atmosphere becomes more lively and Roberto has even been known to bust a move on occasion.
The northwest quadrant of Downtown Phoenix has long been a quiet area, but new housing construction is now emerging in the vacant lots in between intact historic structures. That trend should bring additional density to the area, allowing restaurants like Forno 301 to succeed without being dependent on feast-or-famine event traffic. Combine those developments with planned street improvements on Roosevelt, Fifth Avenue, and Third Avenue, and addresses like 301 West Roosevelt may seen as much part of a “great place” as addresses on the street’s eastern half.
9/13/2017 Update: Since the publication of this review, Forno 301 has relocated to a new address listed below.
1616 N Central Ave., #104, Phoenix, AZ 85004
McDowell / Central Station