ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – To cap off Abingdon Eats, I chose to visit Foresta, which is currently a finalist in USA Today’s Best New Restaurant of 2021 competition.
Unique doesn’t quite cut it for Foresta, as there are many unique spots in the Tri-Cities. Extraordinary might be the right word since the aesthetic and fare of Foresta stands out among some solid, time-tested examples in the town.
The main question that came to my mind when visiting owner Zane Triplett and Chef Marco Rossi was just how in the world the restaurant had made it to a town of under 10,000 in the middle of Southwest Virginia.
For those that haven’t seen the dream team that currently sits at the top of USA Today’s competition, Foresta is keeping pace with the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s resident venue The Barish, San Francisco’s Empress by Boon and New York City’s Hawksmoor steakhouse.
Chef Rossi echoed my own sentiment: to even sit in the same room with these absolute powerhouses in the culinary industry is an honor.
“It’s challenging, of course, but at the same time, it’s amazing that we’re neck-and-neck with these big cities because this is such a small town. So I guess that we’re doing a pretty good job.”
All of these spots faced one of the toughest years the restaurant industry has ever seen, and so far they’ve passed with flying colors. For Triplett, Foresta was always waiting for its home in Abingdon, and when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a call from friends, he didn’t hesitate.
“They’ve always known that if this particular space was to ever come available, to call me and I’d be home in two days,” Triplett said. “And they called me last September, October – I was home in two days.”
Triplett cut his teeth tending bars throughout the region and met Rossi when they worked together.
“I found him in Nashville, he and I ran a very high-end restaurant together for about a year before we both separated from the restaurant,” Triplett said. “And we’ve just kept in contact since. Then this was able to happen and I called him and said ‘Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re moving to Abingdon, Virginia with me.”
Rossi’s story is a bit more complicated and started with his childhood in Rome. When Foresta’s menu says upscale Mediterranean, what they really mean is authentic Italian with a side of whatever you can reach in the shallow seas nearby.
Authentic is a loaded term, but when I say Rossi is authentic, I’m saying the idea of changing his recipes, many of which he learned from family, is blasphemy. At every turn, Foresta promises to do whatever it takes to maintain quality, and it shows on both the plate and the menu.
How can a salmon dish cost $38? Well, when you find out it’s sourced fresh from the Faroe Islands Northwest of Scotland and crossed the Atlantic to make it to your plate, things start to make more sense.
From what I could see, Foresta made no effort to hide the fact that this is an indulgence for those who arrive. From the antique bar to the moody, eclectic atmosphere, there are few places in the building that fail to offer something completely new.
And Foresta isn’t a foreign body dropped into the middle of Main Street; Triplett’s ties run deep in the area. Without experience in The Tavern down the street, Triplett said the venue never would have existed.
“Josh and Celia Fuller, they own The Tavern,” he said. ” I grew up with them, they are some of my best friends in the world.”
Right now, antique knighting swords sit beside battle-ready blades behind the bar manned by national competitor bartenders like Triplett and Marcus. If that doesn’t tell you a bit about what you’re walking into, maybe the turf and tree in the lobby might.
“It’s what kind of presentation you want your guests to experience,” Rossi said. “And everything goes together. It’s not just the food, it’s the service, it’s the ambiance, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the owners. It’s a lot of things that when you put it together, that’s when you create the magic of the restaurant.
While Foresta is dressed for Christmas right now, Triplett said he’ll be leaving a piece of every holiday up as the years continue so he’ll never have to decorate again.
To Rossi, the food isn’t quite as flexible as the interior. If he’s going to do it, Marco’s going to do it right.
“Each dish that goes out has six, seven, eight layers of touching and adjusting before it goes out,” Rossi said. “So it takes time. It’s not just from the pan to the dish. That’s just the beginning.”
A chef obsessing over the presentation of a dish may seem silly considering it’s taking place steps away from a fake skeleton hanging from the ceiling, but that’s the core paradox of Foresta. Finding a fake ficus in your foyer is about as surprising as finding a chef with Rossi’s training in your backyard.
“I went to the Hotel School in Rome. After I graduated there, I left Rome when I was about 20. I went to London, my first job was at the glorious Savoy Hotel. I lived in London for four years, then I went to Paris, from there I started working on a cruise ship. Then I ended up in LA in 1980, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Once he landed in the U.S., Rossi wasted no time in finding work all throughout the culinary industry. Some highlights included L.A., New York, Dallas and many others. Coincidentally, several of the cities he passed through now hold competitors for this year’s best restaurant title.
But like any chef worth his kosher salt, Rossi was quick to point out that he doesn’t do it alone.
“In the kitchen, it’s not just about the chef,” Rossi said. “Because if you don’t have the right crew behind you, the chef can only do so much. And personally, I don’t like – this is my opinion and my point of view – that the chef always gets all the credit. Because I know what’s behind the chef. You have a brigade, you have a crew that does a lot of work that people don’t see. My executive sous chef, Gabriella Grady, she’s amazing.”
Regardless of the vote’s outcome, Foresta’s inclusion in the running is well deserved and completely in line with the quality tastes and experiences that you’ll find elsewhere in Abingdon. There’s a reason they won Best Small Town Food Scene in America for the third year in a row.
If you’d like to vote in the competition, you can do so here. Everyone who visits can vote once per day, and polling closes at noon on Dec. 20.
This is the final in the five-part series “Abingdon Eats.” If you haven’t seen the others and are thinking of visiting the town, I highly recommend giving the others a read or watch below: