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Best Pizza of The Caldwells Contest: Forte Pizzeria

First stop fails to meet samplers' expectations.

Since opening in the mid 1990s, Forte Pizzeria & Ristorante has been at the forefront of redefining the pizza business in The Caldwells. While pizza is at the heart of everything they do—and it's a big center with a wide variety of specialty pies—they offer an even wider menu and finer dining than traditional pizzerias.

The inside of Forte is simple, but built for heavy-duty business. A few years ago, it was closed for a while after a fire broke out (no one was hurt). The owners turned the unfortunate circumstance into a positive by taking over an adjacent storefront, expanding to the right, and then remodeling the place cosmectically and operationally. 

The main area features two customer service areas at the far left and right of the counter, one for ordering and picking up.

Banks of phones also line both sides, with mini-armies of phone girls (and guys) ready to respond. Behind them, drivers stand ready to make their runs. Behind them, one can see glimpses of cooking staff rushing back-and-forth. In the center, looking like the main engine of the place, are four large pizza ovens.

Activity behind the counter is always at a fever pitch, pie making, order taking, drinks, with ringing and picking up all happening at the time. Forte means "strong" in Italian, but here in The Caldwells, it also means "busy."It actually seems very organized, though; some considerable thought went into the layout.

As for seating, Forte offers two main areas. There are large and small tables in the main counter areas and also waiter service. One can order at the counter, or from a menu, and then waitstaff will bring your food. In a separate area, there's a more full-service restaurant dining room. It sometimes can be a little confusing, but the whole place is almost always full—staff and customers alike have figured it out!

Forte has also been a pioneer in the area in terms of location. At 182 Bloomfield Ave., in Caldwell, the restaurant is the last outpost in The Caldwells for pizza, heading east toward Verona.

They've brought traffic to a mini-strip mall for years that was fairly quiet—ladies went to The Gallery haircutters and Little League players went to Baskin-Robbins, but that was pretty much it. Now, any day of the week, the lot at Forte is full with their patron's cars—and or course, folks getting their hair done or enjoying an ice cream cone at Gelotti.

Forte is certainly popular, and everyone has a favorite item on the extensive menu—the escarole and beans, the veal saltimbocca and the square "Grandma's" pizza are all noted specialties—but how does Forte rate with its basic cheese pizza?

With taste buds budding with anticipation, the first-round judges stopped by Forte on an early Tuesday night. The group consisted of Editor Mike Pignataro, Contributor Ron Albanese, "The Kid" Nick Albanese and Caldwells Patch reader and special guest, Akiko Axe. 

Tasting Results

Mike: Overall, the cheese pizza we received was OK. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past the extra-crispy crust. For whatever reason, perhaps since it was a Tuesday night, it was a little tough and ultra-crispy. It was the kind of pie that you couldn't bend the slices. You had to just eat it straight-up! 

The crispness was to the point where it actually took away from the rest of the pie. The cheese was OK, but it had trouble staying on the slices. While the sauce was very flavorful, I had a difficult time honing in on it, because I was distracted by the crust! 

Ron: As we went into this, I was thinking that the great irony about Forte is that as popular as they are, they're not known for their basic cheese pizza. On this first taste test, I think I found out why.

First, the pie was just about burnt. You could see little spots on the cheese where is was cooked a little too long, but the bottom of the crust was most telling; it was fairly black in spots. It was wafer thin on the bottom. There was a little too much semolina on the "handle" part of the crust and it was a little rubbery. The (I suspect part skim) cheese was just OK; there wasn't too much of it on the pie and even when it cooled down, it didn't blend into the pizza; it slid off of my slices.

Now, for a positive: the sauce, as always at Forte, was great. There was a lot of it on the pizza, and didn't disappoint. Even at the same place, all pizzas are not created equal, so I'll give Forte the benefit of the doubt, and stick to their Grandma's square pizza—it's without peer in The Caldwells.

Nick Albanese: "The Kid" kept it short and sweet— it's possible that his attention was diverted by the garlic knots he was devouring. He liked the pizza, saying "there's a lot of sauce" and rated the cheese "good." When prodded about the crust, he declined to judge it, emphatically stating "I do not eat crust," which is a classic kiddie pizza eater's phase. His overall rating: "OK."

Special Guest Judge: Akiko Axe

Aikiko is a lifelong pizza fan—when she moved to Japan as a child, she'd always ask her dad to bring back pizza on overseas business trips! She has lived in West Caldwell since 2001, and has been the Pizza Lunch Committee Chairperson at Washington School. She also has "a great appreciation for local merchants" and will "travel anywhere for food." Sounds like a judge to us.

Akiko's comments:

"The pizza was OK. The presentation is beautiful. There's a right amount of cheese (with a mild taste) cooked just right, a good amount of sauce and oil. The crust was hard, which made the pizza OK instead of great. Overall, I was a bit disappointed."

Forte Pizzeria & Ristorante (182 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell)

Phone: 973-403-9411

Web site: www.fortepizzeria.com

Regular pizza price: $12.95

Taste tasted on: Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010

If you would like to be a guest judge, please let us know or post your experiences at each pizzeria below. The Caldwells Patch continues up Bloomfield Avenue next week with a stop at Calandra's.

Jean Cortese February 27, 2010 at 02:00 PM
The opening write-up is well done. As to the tasters: their comments seem harsh to me. As evidenced any day at lunch time or at night, Forte's is a popular local restaurant and with good reason. A quick glance or taste would have shown the tasters that particular pie was not up to Forte's usual standards. The tasters should have asked for another pie. Also, why not have each person order a different kind of slice. There's probably not a cook alive who didn't, at one time or another, cook something that didn't turn out right . Let's not forget that local businesses rely on local word of mouth, which your column magnifies. In these economic times, we should all be encouraging one another and not undermining someone's livelihood. Forte's has an excellent following, but a smaller store might suffer from negative comments. This shouldn't be about tasters showing what clever food critics they think they are. The contest can be a nice way for local people to hear about a local business and perhaps give it a try. Play nice, boys and girls.
Mike Pignataro (Editor) February 27, 2010 at 07:57 PM
I actually went back to Forte with my wife and daughter last night and we ordered the famous "Grandma's" pie. While 5-month-old Lilly wasn't quite ready to sample a slice for herself, she certainly eyed it up—and for good reason. It was excellent. It was certainly the best "Grandma's" we've ever tried and definitely worthy of the hype. Like Jean said, the pie we tasted on Tuesday could very well have been an anomaly, especially considering the droves of people who continuously come through the doors. But since we are "randomly sampling" plain cheese pizzas, our opinion was based on the single "random" pie we received.
Jim Tomczyk February 28, 2010 at 01:54 AM
I agree with Jean. My wife and I had a pie there last week. And while the crust was thinner than I prefer, it was crisp but definitely not burnt. I'm pretty sure your burnt pie was the exception, rather than the rule.
Ron Albanese February 28, 2010 at 05:18 AM
Jean and Jim - thanks for not only reading, but writing. Making pizza is not always an easy thing - I did it myself for a while, and working with 500 degrees-plus ovens can be tricky. As a customer at Forte for almost 10 years, I know they have generally employ great quality control. I'm more concerned with overall taste.
jimmy pelusio May 14, 2010 at 03:49 AM
Fortes has the pizza , i prefer it thin and wd.
Dan S. July 14, 2010 at 01:41 PM
Forte's is definitely one of the better pies in town. I, for one, like a well done pie, and often ask for it that way, so to some extent it's about personal taste. It's funny: I've never had one that was actually well done at Forte's without asking for it that way. Just an unlucky break I guess. In any case, Franco's will always be #1 and the king in the Caldwells.

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