While everyone loves a good foodie gimmick once in a while, pizza is timeless. And though the debate for the best slice of NYC pizza rages on eternally, Michael Ayoub and his staff at Fornino (849 Manhattan Ave) are sticking to what they know, love, and do best: making great pizza with the freshest ingredients strictly out of a custom-built wood-burning oven.
A Brooklyn native and chef of 45 years, Ayoub opened Fornino (originally in Williamsburg) — named, of course, after his mother — in 2004 after a divorce and due in part to a desire to shift his schedule to devote more time to raising his daughters. In the years since, Fornino has continued to evolve, introducing various pizza toppings while never straying from the authenticity they’ve become synonymous with. I experienced this firsthand while trying both the Pesche E Coppa and Bianca pies — expertly introducing a mix of different flavors, textures, and both newer-age and traditional pizza ingredients all on their wood-fired crust — paired with house-made sangria in the restaurant’s outdoor garden.
Greenpointers caught up with Ayoub to hear about how he runs a kitchen, the magnetic appeal of Taqueria Ramirez, and much more in our latest Behind the Toque.
Greenpointers: What inspired you to start Fornino in the area?
Chef Michael: I was a regular at Planet Thailand because my friends were building the Brooklyn Brewery at the time and there was a moment that I was actually with my present wife and we had come out of Planet Thailand and, let’s face it, Bedford and N 7th [St.] in 2004 was the epicenter of the world with the L train, and everybody was there. I was constantly looking for spaces and the L Café came up for sale on a Google search or something, and long story short, I rented the space and was there for 14 years. Officially, the Greenpoint location opened May 20, 2013.
Greenpointers: Have you noticed any differences at your Greenpoint location compared to others?
Chef Michael: The Greenpoint location is very family centric. I often say to people that the young people that fell in love and then had a family, they moved to Greenpoint and had babies.
Greenpointers: What is your philosophy in the kitchen?
Chef Michael: I’ve been cooking since 13 years old. I bought my first restaurant when I was 20. I try to use the best ingredients that are available and, as a chef, I bring a different perspective to pizza than I think most other people in the business. We’re very proud of what we do. There’s a couple of classic lines about [how] pizza chefs dream up things — one of the funny stories about one Italian guy, they had asked him, “Chef, how did you dream of this?” He said, “At night I do one of three things: I sleep, I make love, or I dream about pizza. Last night, I dreamt about pizza.”
Greenpointers: What would you recommend to someone dining with Fornino for the first time?
Chef Michael: We have a tremendous variety of pizza. The Anna Rosa’s Meatballs are a recipe from this old Italian cooking teacher that I’ve been doing for about 40 years, they’re very special. The antipasto that’s coming out of the wood-fired oven is very unique; we have that artichoke that comes out the wood-fired oven. The only cooking facility we have is that wood oven, so everything we make is coming out of a wood-fired oven, which that high heat really makes it very, very special.
Greenpointers: What restaurants in the area do you enjoy when you’re not working?
Chef Michael: Oxomoco is a great restaurant right around the corner, actually at one point my daughter was the general manager of it and Gabrielle got them their first Michelin star. For a piece of pastry, of course, [Cafe] Riviera bakery across the street, they have an amazing, amazing croissant for me in the morning with my coffee. Frankel’s makes a great sandwich, and of course you cannot forget Taqueria Ramirez, it’s unbelievable. It’s really an effort to stay away at a certain point.
Greenpointers: Anything coming up at Fornino that people can get excited about?
Chef Michael: We’re celebrating 10 years there and we redid the whole place over. And this fall we’ll be launching a line for brunch. I’ve come up with — I would say decadent — breakfast calzones and breakfast pizzas.
We are gonna do some pizza classes, make pizza and drink wine. We’re playing with the idea of giving grilled pizza classes also before it gets a little bit too cold. One of my other passions is, as a chef, I love to teach. No matter what, if I have a menu and you come into a restaurant, you could have 20 years of experience, but the point is I still have to teach you my menu. It’s not the recipe, it’s the technique.