Al Forno is a peaceful haven from the hubbub outside. With the soothing aromas of foods and coffees wafting through the elegant interior you really could be lost in Europe and not just off Linthorpe Road.
Situated on the now pedestrianised Southfield Road we are close to the new square that is a hub of the University campus. It is a modern, go ahead part of town but also a peaceful place to relax and take in some delightful food.
I chat with the manager and as we sip cups of tea he tells me about how much he is looking forward to the third Middlesbrough Restaurant Week.
Q: Can I start by asking you your name.
Al: Everyone knows me as Al, Al from Albania.
Q: How long have you been at Al Forno, Al?
I have been working for Al Forno’s 3 years now, before that I have been working in different restaurants in Teesside and north west of England, also I was seven years in Greece.
Q: So you have been in restaurants for a long time?
Al: That is what I know. It has been a long time.
Q: Do you enjoy it on Teesside?
Al: Yes indeed. I have been since 2001 in England but about 12 years of that has been in Middlesbrough. I am married to a local girl. I have three kids. So I can’t complain, it is good.
Q: There have been so many changes in this part of town, even over the past year.
Al: Indeed it has changed a lot. Teesside University. We have got a couple of new restaurants and another one opposite at us. It looks great, actually. You get customers on that and how good it is. I think it is a prime location.
Q: The whole nature of this (Southfield) road and this area has totally transformed.
Al: Yes, transformed. Because of this University area further down the road it is great to walk on an evening.
Q: It must be nice to sit outside here without the traffic.
Al: Absolutely. It is nice and quiet actually. When we get the great days, the sunny days, it is fantastic. It is full out there, you have to get indoor tables and put them outside so people can sit out there. It is nice and quiet, no dust, no pollution.
Q: The amount of restaurants and good restaurants now in the town must show that people have a real appetite now for eating out in Middlesbrough.
Al: Absolutely. I would say the last 7 months its great we get new business in, we get new customers coming in to town now because of all these new restaurants and cafes. So we get new people in. Al Forno has been open for ten years now, so imagine this after ten years we get first time customers. That is because it is more in town, there is more here for people to come for. The location here is away from the town centre so you have to come specifically to visit us rather than you are walking and just find us. So, I think it is a good move. Middlesbrough has moved forwards by far.
Q: You are close to the heart of the campus now.
Al: We have been here ten years but I think the changes have benefited us a lot. We do a lot of business with the lecturers from the University. With the students yes also but it is not a major thing for us but we do quite a lot of business with the lecturers.
Q: You do very well at lunch times. Presumably people eat differently then to evenings. What are the most popular dishes on a lunch time?
Al: Obviously at lunch time you can have something light and quick because you don’t have too much time. We have the offers. The Happy Hour opens at lunch time. You can have a soup and a platter at £5.95. You can have a quick pizza and we do variations of salad as well. Then we do the Express Lunch as well. They give us a call and order in advance. They come in, get a drink, we serve the food. 45 minutes they are done, happy and they have gone back to work
Q: What about on evenings?
Al: On evenings we do well. The Happy Hour is still available 7 days until 6.30pm. Then we have got the A La Carte menu. We introduce a lot of new dishes, we have got the steaks and the seafoods and so on. On our menu there is about 150 dishes. A bit of everything, we cater for everyone, vegetarian, celiac, gluten free.
Q: What are the most popular dishes on an evening?
Al: On an evening the most popular is the famous parmesan. So, without doubt, people don’t look at the menu, straight for the parmesan. One of the best you can have in Middlesbrough.
Q: There is a lot of competition around town.
Al: There is but honestly our parmesan is one of the best. The best one is fresh chicken breast. That is the main ingredient; it has to be fresh chicken. Also with the steaks we do a variation of the steaks, five different type of steaks on the menu. That is one of the good sellers. Also the seafood that is by far one of the best sellers. So, there is a market in Middlesbrough for seafood.
Q: Where do you source your ingredients?
Al: It is all done locally. We buy very local. QFS is just around the corner for vegetables. Everything is locally sourced. So we are helping the local businesses as well.
Q: Talking about local links. I often see your name up on the advertising at Middlesbrough Football Club.
Al: Yes. And we sponsor local athletes. Richard Kilty, the sprinter. He is a local lad when he asked us last year for sponsorship we straight away said yes. Also a young teenage pole vaulter, Charlie Myers. We have sponsored 9 to 12 year old kids playing football in Normanby, South Park Rangers, for 2 years as well. As well as Nunthorpe Squash Club. We are doing a little bit to help the locals.
Q: Do you get a lot of returning customers?
Al: Yes indeed we do get a lot of regulars. Based on that we have a Privilege Card scheme. We like to make sure that we look after the customers so they can come back again and get something in return. With the cards they can get a free bottle of wine or free main course. It is very popular and people keep on asking. It is very easy, you can get a card online as well or submit the application online and we will post out to the customer.
Q: The décor and furnishings it makes for a pleasant atmosphere.
Al: Absolutely, as I mentioned the restaurant has been open for 10 years, this June it will be our tenth anniversary in Middlesbrough. And the décor has been made by a popular interior designer and it has been maintained for 10 years in the same way. You get the wow factor when new customers first come in. Wow, you don’t expect it. Yes indeed. It is very nice and relaxing. A very enjoyable evening you can have in Al Fornos.
Q: Do you do Sunday lunches?
Al: Yes we do. We do Sunday lunches, we do Sunday roast, the traditional beef, pork, chicken, lamb. It is a market we still need to push. And we do a Happy Hour on a Sunday as well.
Q: You have been involved in restaurant week each year now, have you found it successful?
Al: Yes indeed. First year it was great and second year again it was good and hopefully the third year will be even better. That is why we have changed the offer this year compared to the previous two years.
This year we will have two offers. We will have the daytime offer, Monday to Thursday between 12 o’clock and 5 o’clock. That will be choices of two pizzas from the Happy Hour, two desserts and two soft drinks for £14.95.
Then that will change from the 5 o’clock until close. It will change to a pizza from the A La Carte Menu and get a second one free.
That second offer should be very tempting because the pizzas could be £10 and you get the second one for free.
Q: Restaurant Week will correspond with a big time for Middlesbrough because of the Tour de Yorkshire.
Al: Yes the cycling.
Q: And also hopefully the football club is celebrating promotion at the end of the week.
Al: Oh that would be fantastic. I can’t wait. I have been a long time in Middlesbrough now and I remember when they were in the Premier League and it was fantastic. Home matches were amazing.
Q: Do you get people coming in here to eat on match days? I guess it was good in the Premier years.
Al: Yes. I remember I was working for different restaurants in the town and home games it was great. Sometimes footballers would go out to restaurants after evening games. It was buzzing, the town. It was great, a great feeling. I remember with Steve McClaren going to the final of the Europa Cup fantastic, it was great. But hopefully this year we will go up and the town will be buzzing again.
Q: That weekend with all the cyclists coming in for the Tour is going to be a big week for the town, isn’t it?
Al: Absolutely and it will probably put Middlesbrough on the map for the right reasons.
Photos – Tracy Hyman
Monday – Thursday: 10:00-22:00
Tel: (01642) 242 191
2 Southfield Road,
Middlesbrough, TS1 3BZ
Middlesbrough Restaurant Week – Monday 2nd – Sunday 8th May 2016