Bonta del Forno’s cuisine transports diners from a Denham Springs strip to a delicious Italian dream

THE BASICS: Isaias Gomez opened Bonta del Forno in July 2020 as the main tenant of the Sac Au Lait strip center near Bass Pro Shops. Gomez’s background in restaurants includes part ownership of Sarita’s Mexican restaurant in Denham Springs. He brought on Chef Alba Sabillon for this reworking of classic Italian cuisine with an extensive wine and cocktail menu and a private wine room for small parties.

WHAT’S A MUST: The spinach and prosciutto salad (Insalata di Rucola con Prosciutto) is packed with delicious ingredients. The seasonal Spaghetti alla Vongole offers fresh clams in a wonderful garlicky white-wine sauce. The Costolette di Maiale Impanate is a hefty serving of breaded pork chop and garlic-roasted potatoes.

About 225’s food critic: Benjamin Leger previously served as managing editor for 225 and was the editor of its Taste section from 2012 to 2021, editing, writing and steering the direction of its food coverage in print and online. He is passionate about all things food and food journalism, and has written about the greater Baton Rouge area’s cuisine and culture for nearly two decades.

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As much as you would want to snub your nose at the proliferation of strip malls in our region, you can’t argue that some of the best food can be found in those nondescript, cookie-cutter shopping centers.

In the case of Bonta del Forno—in a maze of strip malls next to Bass Pro Shops in Denham Springs—the owners have gone to great lengths to make the interior more inviting, with nods to villas and wine cellars in the Italian countryside. The walls are a mix of plaster and exposed brick, and the interior features arched doorways, cozy fireplaces and intimate dining rooms with big wooden tables.

It’s maybe a little much, but the restaurant gets kudos for creating ambiance. And the real success anyway is the food.

I joined some friends there one weekday evening, eager to try what its website describes as “reworked traditional Italian dishes.”

A glance at the menu, and the average south Louisianian might struggle to figure out dishes like the Costolette di Agnello al Rosmarino or Linguini con Gamberetti Cremosi. Thankfully, there are descriptions under each to help you relay to your server that you’d like the lambchop or the shrimp linguini, respectively. Or, you could just point.

We began our meal with wine and cocktails and an order of the Funghi Ripieni di Salsiccia, a stuffed mushrooms starter.

Complimentary bread arrived first at the table: Two warm, mini baguettes were doused in lots of olive oil, grated Parmesan and a dried herb mixture, but could have used more salt and pepper.

The mushroom appetizer came next, baked in a hot casserole dish loaded with enough cheese to completely hide what was inside: several small portabella mushroom caps topped with crumbled Italian sausage. The sausage at Bonta del Forno is house-made, and while it was a little dry in this dish, the flavors were all there. Coupled with the rich topping, this casserole made for some cheesy goodness.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara at Bonta del Forno

For a little balance before we headed into entree territory, we wanted something veggie-centric. We opted for the Insalata di Rucola con Prosciutto, with spinach, prosciutto, slivers of sauteed oyster mushrooms, almonds, dried cranberries and shaved Parmesan.

The serving was huge—enough for four people to give it a try with still some left over. And the balsamic reduction that served as a dressing was drizzled lightly enough that it didn’t overwhelm. My only complaint was that the prosciutto wasn’t sliced thinly enough, making it chewy and hard to pull apart.

For our entrees, we wanted to sample a couple of pasta dishes as well as some red meat that exemplified the restaurant’s twists on classic Italian.

I was interested when I saw that mussels appeared twice on the menu, as an appetizer and in a pasta dish. But when the server told us that the seasonal clams dish, Spaghetti alla Vongole, was available, I had to give it a try.

It’s rare to see a pasta dish with fresh clams on a menu in the Capital Region. This one featured spaghetti and a light white-wine sauce with bits of onion, garlic and parsley. The beautiful ivory-white clams were fresh and plentiful—making the bowl heavy—and the sauce was addictive. Even my partner, who is usually seafood averse, was dipping bread into the pool of briny sauce.

Our other pasta dish was Spaghetti alla Carbonara. It featured large chunks of pork cheeks and a nice eggy sauce that coated the noodles, but it wasn’t seasoned enough to be as flavorful as the clams dish.

For our meat entree, we went with the Costolette di Maiale Impanate, featuring a breaded and pan-seared pork chop served with garlic-roasted potatoes. The pork chop was super tender with a lovely crust on the outside. It was covered in an herb-flecked cheese sauce that was good, but we all wished a bit for a zesty marinara as a counterpoint to the savory meat. The potatoes were more boiled than roasted, but still tasty with a shower of Parm and parsley.

Of the entrees, the clams were the clear winner. It’s something I’d definitely get again. And a return trip would also give me the opportunity to try something with a marinara or another tomato sauce (which everyone at my table realized was missing from our choices that evening) or perhaps the recurring Red Fish Croquettes special that fans of the restaurant rave about.

While I’m not sure I can say Bonta del Forno steps too far outside the box of traditional Italian fare, as its website boasts, it certainly has enough interesting takes and fresh, quality food to transport diners out of the strip malls and into a delicious Italian fantasy.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of 225 magazine.