Il Forno

14981 Stony Plain Road (southeast corner, Jasper Gates shopping centre)

780 455 0443

www.ilforno.ca

Food: 4 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns

Service: 4 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two (excluding drinks and tip): Basic, $40; Loaded, $70

I declare my bias up front.

Anna Muze is a delightful, friendly and big-hearted restaurateur.

To not like her and her restaurant, Il Forno in the west end, would be impossible.

And everybody in the hospitality biz — those in the kitchens and dining rooms, those who love to eat out — would be in agreement. Most know Anna from her years as maitre d’ at Peter Johner’s Packrat Louie and, before that, at Sorrentino’s.

After Peter sold Packrat (he now makes fine chocolates at his rustic chalet near Devon), Anna made good on a long-standing desire to open her own restaurant.

She bought Il Forno from another formerly well-known restaurateur, Frank Maio (also of Sceppa’s fame).

There are far too few restaurants with such a personal touch.

Il Forno is everybody’s vision of what a mom ‘n’ pop restaurant ought to be.

It’s as if you’ve been invited into Anna’s own kitchen: Round wooden tables, old-fashioned spindle-style wooden chairs, gingham tablecloths, natural light streaming through big windows, an open kitchen where Maria works alongside her cooks. Warmth pours out of a brick pizza oven. A chalk board by the entrance announces the specials of the day.

These are not 20-year-olds in black cocktail dresses, but real servers who know their customers, know their kitchen. Servers who have been with Anna since she took over Il Forno, and have no intention of going elsewhere.

But here’s the difference between Il Forno and the mom ‘n’ poppers.

Mom ‘n’ pops will offer honest, simple and thoroughly traditional cooking. Menus don’t change.

Anna offers hearty helpings of interesting, always-evolving traditional and contemporary Italian cuisine at mid-level pricing.

She covers the basics on her menu — insalatas (salads), pizzas from a super-hot brick oven, popular pastas and a limited (salmon, rack of lamb, chicken breast) main courses.

But it’s the chalkboard the regulars turn to, to order Il Forno’s daily, intriguing, main-course specials.

On this occasion, our party of four is distressingly predictable. An antipasto shared by all, a salad for Maria and me plus two seafood pasta variations. For our friends, the rack of lamb for the hearty eater and a vegetarian pasta. Good Italian wine and a shared dessert top off the night.

All is delicious. The Antipasto Mediterranean is a lovely starter for all, a generous platter of fresh-sliced and rolled cold-cuts — salami, prosciutto, mortadella, with cheeses and lightly oiled red pepper and artichoke slices. All was so fresh as to free the imagination, to pretend for a fleeting moment or two that we were eating outdoors under the Tuscan sun.

The Linguine Busera refers to a specific mix of seafood and tomato sauce with linguine found throughout Italy. The Fettuccine Amalfi Coast is a regional dish from that famous stretch of Italian coastline south of Naples, inspired by local produce of its land and sea — shrimp, scallops, garlic, spinach and cream.

Both were excellent — fresh light pastas, fresh mixed seafood, lively sauces. The rack of lamb was done to perfection, accented by a tangy home-made jalapeno and mint concoction.

Dessert was a crowning combo of chilled yoghurt and smooth crème caramel, a lovely, silky ending to a fine dinner.

There’s no need to “update” or “modernize” Il Forno: No need, Anna, to change a darned thing.

Just keep up the creativity and imagination arriving at your tables from those chalkboard specials of the day.

Several known restaurants have recently closed, some surprising, some not.

One would have thought the French/regional flair of Bistro Saisons on 104th Avenue would be a recipe for a long and healthy run, but the bistro unexpectedly shut its doors.

The Makk on 124th Street never lived up to its potential. The attractive location won’t be empty for long.

The west end’s Plow & Harvest had a lifespan of mere months — its marketing was much better than its kitchen.

Most distressing is the recent closure of a north-end culinary icon, Maria and Carla Nobre’s Spago Portuguese Restaurant. More details, we hope, to come.