Restaurant Review: La Foresta, Killingworth

All images by Jeff Kaufman

★★★ [Superior]

​When it comes to fine dining, Killingworth is one of the most underserved towns in the state, not because it’s hard to get to but because it’s so easy to zip through without looking right or left as food and wine connoisseurs have done for years, simply asserting that “there’s nothing there.” That changed when a man with vision looked at a bulky, barn-like building, vacant for years on Route 81 in Killingworth, and saw Tuscany.

A wine bar and ristorante in the Florentine hills. Persian rugs on polished hardwood floors. Rough-hewn rafters overhead. Oil paintings on the walls. Fine Italian wines. Garden-fresh, ingredient-driven Northern Italian cuisine. Francesco Lulaj, visionary and Killingworth resident, saw it all clearly and knew he was the man to make it happen because he had learned the restaurant business from the ground up, busboy to owner, in Italy as well as in the United States, at prestigious restaurants—Il Mullino in Manhattan, Adriana in New Haven and (the experience he treasures most) working with Gino Ferri at La Foresta Restaurant in Rocca di Papa, the Pope’s summer residence in Rome.Fast-forward. Nine months ago Francesco Lulaj (with wife, Cassandra, at right) opened La Floresta, the restaurant of his dreams in that (gorgeously renovated) old building in Killingworth.

I was eager to review this exciting new place but waited several months before doing so because even with a pro like Francesco, who finds and hires the finest talent around—and plenty of it (La Foresta has eight chefs in the kitchen, two imported from Italy)—it takes time for a staff to meld into a team.

As it turned out, service on the busy Friday night we arrived was enthusiastic and solicitous but not without flaws. The fact that the staff clearly liked what they were doing and liked where they were doing it made up for a lot. Yes, this lovely lofty restaurant was loud, but what hip eatery isn’t nowadays? Hint: Upstairs where the Persian rugs are it’s a bit quieter.

More important, the food lives up to the backstory—exciting, modern, a little bit sophisticated but (departing from the trendy playbook) exuberantly bountiful. If you’re secretly a little sick of fiddling around with a slew of tapas, tacos, nibbles and bites, you’ll be in seventh heaven here. But not to worry, if huge portions daunt you, the staff is ready with share plates, pastas are available in whole or half portions and the kitchen will obligingly wrap whatever you wish to take home.

The first thing we ordered, an appetizer of sautéed shrimp wrapped in pancetta, stunned us with its opulence. The most succulent, sweet, tender-crisp shrimp in the world, veiled in tissue-thin pancetta, arrived on a bright green hill of fresh spinach. Garnished with on-the-stem baby artichoke hearts, it could have been an entrée and easily served three of us as an appetizer. Fresh burrata, an appetizer special, was equally generously apportioned but so luscious we ended up eating every morsel and scraping the plate clean.

Although La Foresta bakes its own bread daily, we didn’t pay too much attention. Served cold, it’s just bread after all, and more enticing dishes kept luring us away. Insalata La Foresta, for example. While a very nice green salad comes with all entrées, I just had to try this signature dish, which turned out to be a salad fit for a king. And not all that expensive—an impressive collection of romaine lettuce, red onions, red cherry tomatoes and an amazing amount of pinkish white Maine lobster meat out of the shell, tail and claw, in a Caesar-like dressing, for $12.95. Again, enough for two or even three to share.

Scallops with spicy carrot purée, drizzled with a cilantro lime sauce.

Classic steak tartare was elaborate and filled with capers, mustard, onions, egg yolk, crostini and arugula salad, but the sum of the parts lacked somewhat in finesse because the raw beef was coarsely ground rather than sliced paper thin, and the egg yolk pooled on the plate and had to be mixed in. Not classic, but the flavors were there and I enjoyed it for what it was.

On the other hand, boneless filets of Mediterranean sea bass, snow white, moist and fresh-tasting, draped over mushroom risotto and drizzled with tomato and basil vinaigrette, left nothing to be desired.

Stuffed chicken breast, a sort of rouladen made with chicken instead of beef, was surprisingly good. The chicken in this instance was tender and moist, bland, of course, as breast meat always is but a tasty filling of prosciutto di Parma and sharp provolone made up for that and a salad of arugala and baby vegetables brightened the palate and the plate. With this dish, the menu promised truffled mashed potatoes. The night we were there our potatoes were un-truffled. Good anyway, and what’s a truffle or two among friends? 

Tre colore pasta black linguine squid, red beet pasta and spinach pasta, sautéed with shrimp and cherry tomato, and topped with argula in garlic, extra virgin olive oil wine sauce.

Indeed, much of La Foresta’s charm resides in its friendly, angst-free bonhomie. Dessert featured a pretty-as-a-picture tray of goodies presented with a flourish for our deliberation. Tiramisu, cheesecake, carrot cake, cannoli—oh, the sweet agony of choosing! We ended up falling in love with the special of the day, a glorified version of tarte tatin topped with lemon ice and candied apple peel served with melon purée and a big red accordion-sliced strawberry alongside.

Crossing the parking lot to our car, we noticed a mini-forest of tall evergreen trees growing incongruously along the highway directly in front of La Foresta. Coincidence or destiny?

La Foresta 

163 Route 81, Killingworth, (860) 663-1155, laforestarestaurant.com

Lunch: Mon. through Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon. through Wed. 3 to 10 p.m., Thurs. through Sat. 3 to 11:30 p.m., Sun. noon to 9:30 p.m. Price range: Appetizers $9.95 to $12.95, entrées $18.95 to $29.95, desserts $2.50 to $6.99. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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