Every so often, a restaurant comes along and reminds diners  of why food is so integral to life. They might realize this at a fine dining establishment with haute cuisine and a stunning view or at a gas station pit stop with mind-blowing tacos. For Sarasotans, visiting Al Forno Mediterranean Grill at University Town Center reacquaints guests with the magic of eating out. Al Forno, the brainchild of owner Ibrahim S., specializes in Lebanese and Mediterranean food. Ibrahim, a humble and straightforward man of Lebanese origin opened Al Forno in October of last year. In 2015, he moved from Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a high population of residents with Lebanese and Arabic heritage, to Sarasota. “I searched for authentic Lebanese food in the area, but it was missing,” says Ibrahim. “I wanted to introduce something that I could bring from home and share part of the culture with people,” he adds, recommending chicken shawarma, a popular wrap stuffed with tender grilled chicken, garlic sauce and pickles along with an appetizer of stuffed grape leaves and a side of tabouli salad.  “We use local chickens, but season and marinate them with a mixture of spices from Lebanon,” Ibrahim says, “and some of the spices come from my village.” The shawarma spices linger on the tongue, encouraging guests to imagine that across the world in Lebanon, someone in Ibrahim’s village is savoring the same flavors.

Never mind the time difference; it’s shawarma o’clock somewhere. The grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onions and Mediterranean seasoning are soft and warm while the tabouli salad adds depth of texture. Where the grape leaves melt in the mouth, the tabouli salad with parsley, tomatoes, green onions, mint, olive oil, lemon juice and Lebanese spices packs tang and crunch. Al Forno’s version without the bulgar wheat often found in the dish intensifies the fresh vegetables and zesty herbs without a speck of brown on the parsley leaves.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

“We make the smallest batches of tabouli throughout the day, ” says general manager Angel De La Torre. According to him, if tabouli sits too long, its quality decreases. “You have to stay on top of making it all day,” he adds. In contrast with Ibrahim’s quiet passion, Angel’s enthusiasm for Al Forno shines through his eloquent descriptions of the restaurant’s team and mission. 

Angel leads a team of chefs and other employees who go above and beyond to serve guests. “When we first opened, about 85 percent of our customers were Middle Eastern,” he says, “but now we have people from all walks of life coming in and gravitating toward our personalities and what we put on the plate.” Angel runs down the lineup of his crew, which includes chefs Saad and Khaled. “You can feel the love and passion that Saad, a lifelong cook, puts into the food and presents so artistically” adds Angel, “and Khaled is like a scientist dedicated to getting the flavors right.” One of Khaled’s latest menu additions is kunafa, a sweet cheese pastry. “He’ll put something together and have us taste it like 300 times,” Angel says. “He’s always thinking about what else customers will fall in love with while showing them how important they are to us.” 

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

From sourcing local ingredients like eggplant for the baba ghanouj to eliminating saturated fats, Al Forno’s staff channels their customer appreciation into the healthiness and caliber of the food they serve. “We make all of our falafel in-house by grinding the chickpeas with seasoning fresh on the spot,” says Ibrahim, “and I don’t know another place around here that does that.” For Ibrahim, presenting dishes of the highest standard isn’t just a good business practice; it’s a tool for sharing a pillar of Lebanese culture with the community. “In Lebanon, the food is freshly made and homegrown, a concept that we’re trying to bring here by adding Lebanese spices to Florida-grown products,” he adds, understanding that culture and cuisine go together like hummus and pita.

“We have customers who eat here every day,” adds Angel, “and our goal is to be a household name and family restaurant where kids can come in, have a good time and feel the harmonious energy.” As parents and their children bond over lunch in an adjacent booth, it’s easy to predict that those grown children will return to Al Forno with their own families, eager to enrich their lives with the flavors and hospitality of Lebanon.