Fero, this Italian-influenced restaurant at the Pizitz Food Hall, offers a fascinating culinary journey.
By Joe O’Donnell // Photography by Beau Gustafson
Making iron is a process. A combination of iron ore, coke and limestone melded in a blast furnace and yielding at the end the pure strength of iron.
Fero, Italian for iron, a new restaurant in the Pizitz Food Hall, is a blending as well. New York City-based chef/owner Akhtar Nawab is focused along with the restaurant’s chef de cuisine Doug Hesselgesser on creating that melding and balance in Fero’s menu.
“We take an Italian inspiration and pepper it with other interesting properties,” says Nawab. “It is not overwhelmingly manipulated but just enough to give it some interest. I want the diner to say, ‘I have never had a variation like this.’”
“The most interesting food I have ever had is that which borders other cultures,” says Nawab, raised in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Indian parents.
“When you get to the far north in Italy, you have a Germanic influence in the food. When you go far south, you have an Arabic sensibility. In the northwest of Italy, there is a French influence. At Fero we are creating a menu that operates along this perimeter of Italy,” Nawab says.
Fero is tucked into a corner of the Pizitz Food Hall, offering the option of a fine dining experience among the food stalls and central bar, The Louis, of the city’s latest and premier food attraction on the first floor of the recently restored Pizitz building.
An open kitchen with counter seating commands the 85-seat restaurant, which features table seats and banquettes, a bar, and a private dining room with a view of the McWane Science Center across 2nd Avenue. Outdoor seating is available in the pocket park area just outside The Pizitz.
“Birmingham is a very progressive city and is experiencing real growth. We are excited to be part of that. It reminds me a lot of Louisville. Birmingham is on a growth spurt,” Nawab says.
“When my business partner, Matthew Wagman, and I were approached about adding our fast-casual concept, Choza Taqueria, to The Pizitz, I was excited. I instantly felt comfortable in Birmingham. Birmingham has a bustling food scene, and to research the market, we had to eat extensively around town. When we were offered a restaurant space next door to the food hall, it all came together. Birmingham did not have a lot in the way of fresh pasta, but with my background at Gramercy Tavern and Craft, I had a solid foundation in Mediterranean cooking. Which is how we opened the Italian restaurant Fero. Establishing a restaurant in Birmingham is very personal; it’s almost one-on-one with every new customer. It’s thrilling to be part of a community that’s on the verge of a dynamic culinary growth spurt. From coffee and biscuits to BBQ and beer, these are the local spots that I keep returning to,” says Nawab.
On a recent Saturday night, Fero was bustling. The open kitchen was a tapestry of movement and sound and the waitstaff was hustling food and drink orders around the compact yet roomy restaurant.
The dinner menu at Fero is divided into starters, pastas, main entrees and vegetables. From the starters menu, some of the highlights include beausoleil oysters with black pepper and horseradish granita as well as crab toast with vadouvan aioli that has proven to be among the most popular starters. The pork belly is served with buckwheat spaetzle, sweet potato and mustard jus.
There are three pasta dishes: croxetti with shiitake bolognese and spinach; garganelli with amaretti flour, guanciale, squash and sage; and free-form ravioli with braised lamb, harissa and smoked ricotta.
The mains range in price from $27 to $39 and feature seafood dishes like the black sea bass with vadouvan curry, eggplant and butter beans, the baked snapper, and scallops. Meat dishes include Joyce Farms chicken served with squash gratin, spinach, marcona almonds and honey, a ribeye with smoked mushrooms, pickled mustard seed gnocchi and peppercorn, and a pork osso buco featuring a Niman Ranch pork shank.
The vegetable selections are crispy brussels sprouts, cauliflower and market greens.
Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. •