franco’s italian caffe
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Franco’s Italian Caffe
April, 2013, Page 365
Photos by David Moore
Florence-born chef and local legend Franco Fazzuoli returns to Scottsdale with top-notch traditional dishes.
When some 4 million Italians – mostly from the heel and toe of the boot – immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, they brought with them their nonnas’ recipes, adapted to suit American abundance. Dishes became supersized and saucy, and classics such as
marinara-drenched pasta with huge meatballs and chicken parmesan were born. This was the hearty Italian-American fare most of us discovered in childhood.
Which is why the cuisine Franco Fazzuoli brought to the Valley in the 1980s was so earth-shattering. The Florence-born chef – who once owned a trattoria in that Tuscan city – came to America at age 25 and eventually opened three acclaimed restaurants in Manhattan. In 1987, Fazzuoli moved his young family to Scottsdale and launched Franco’s Trattoria. He opened in an extremely tiny space that provoked an extremely big response. At the time, I was restaurant critic at The Arizona Republic and was perplexed by all the calls I was getting about the place. What made it different from the dozens of other Italian restaurants in town? One visit and I got it, in spades.
This was an Italian Italian restaurant, characterized by a restrained culinary palette, lightly gilded pasta, and intrinsically elegant food that’s comfortingly down home. Though the menu was fairly standard, it was the Florentine specialties that Fazzuoli and Chef Steve Martin snuck into the mix that thrilled the crowds: game dishes like pappardelle with wild boar ragu, supernal squash-filled tortelloni with gorgonzola sauce and walnuts, a juicy chicken cutlet topped with balsamic-dressed greens, and twists of fresh pasta filled with minced veal and chicken. Then there was Franco himself, a bustling, bearded, avuncular presence who genuinely made every diner feel like a pampered celebrity. By the time he moved into larger premises (twice), the bill of fare was pure regional Italian, and Franco had become a local legend.
squid-ink linguini with chunks of crab and cherry tomatoes
And then he left us. Six years ago, when his teenaged daughters moved back East to pursue careers as ballerinas, Fazzuoli tagged along and opened a restaurant in Greenwich Village. Now, Fazzuoli, Martin, and a smooth, personable service crew are back, tucked into the old Bravo Bistro location and packing ’em in like it’s 1987.
The modest-sized, L-shaped room feels timeless and organic. An inviting little bar and dark-toned half-paneling crisply contrast with white walls displaying photos of iconic Italian scenes. Shelving for wine and beautifully set tables compose the only other accents. The main attraction is the food.
Traditional Italian dining means a leisurely antipasto, pasta and secondi, or main course. In deference to lighter American appetites, the kitchen will cheerfully put together tasting samplers or share plates of starters and pastas. When it comes to cooking style, though, Fazzuoli hews closely to the Tuscan mantra – top-notch ingredients prepared simply. To wit: silken prosciutto paired with stupendously creamy burrata ($10); delicate house-made mozzarella with ripe tomatoes ($10); and soft yet crispy cubes of polenta topped with melty gorgonzola on a bed of arugula ($7.50).
Perfectly grilled and perfectly simple seasonal vegetables ($10) are flavor sensations. Delicate lamb meatballs in a lamb-stock-enriched tomato sauce ($9) would be in a class by themselves if they didn’t share valedictorian status with the paper-thin slices of barely seared filet mignon atop lightly dressed greens ($11). Rather than the ubiquitous fried version, the kitchen flash-grills calamari ($11), giving them a firm texture and surprisingly sweet flavor profile.
Mozzarella and tomatoes
Imaginative salads are also made for sharing. A crisp fennel, watercress and radish combo with pistachio-studded yogurt dressing ($10) and curly endive with crunchy bits of pancetta and the salty tang of gorgonzola ($10) are each off-beat and refreshing.
Among the pastas, linguine with cockles (fresh baby clams) in garlicky, red pepper-flecked broth ($15) is lovely, as is the ultra-rich fettuccine tartufo ($18) with its wonderfully earthy truffle aroma. Pasta erbe aromatiche – fresh pasta spirals in a creamy, cheesy, herb-flecked and prosciutto-spiked sauce ($15) – is pure Italian comfort food.
The nightly specials are still Fazzuoli’s playground. Both a dramatic tangle of squid-ink linguini with chunks of crab, cherry tomatoes and a hit of garlic ($21.50), and a luxurious lobster risotto ($28.50) are phenomenal. Sometimes the kitchen features arista, a massive, golden-brown pork chop in its own delicious pan juices ($23), or rack of lamb judiciously seasoned with rosemary ($27.50). From the regular menu, there’s a fork-tender veal chop with an intense mushroom sauce ($30.50), intriguing pistachio-crusted salmon ($22), and the signature massive, medium-rare bistecca Fiorentina ($39). Sides also get respect, especially garlicky sautéed spinach and a rich and oozy potato cheese stack.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: pasta
• Governor’s Chocolate Cake
Desserts are often an afterthought at Italian restaurants, but not so at Franco’s (all desserts $8). His justly famous merenghata is a cloud of baked, sweetened meringue gilded with whipped cream and fresh berries. Mascarpone cheesecake makes the New York version seem like a sour second cousin, and hazelnut chocolate tart with a Frangelico-spiked custard filling is a perfect balance of flavors and textures. Ardent chocolate lovers won’t be able to resist the moist, ganache-frosted bittersweet chocolate cake originated by Franco’s pal, Arizona-governor-turned-pastry-chef Fife Symington.
The wine list includes both California and Italian vintages, and you can feel absolutely confident asking for advice – the staff is sensitive to preferences as well as wallets. On a recent visit, we drank a fruit-forward Ugolino Sagrantino Di Montefalco ($65) that went down like honey – just like everything at this restaurant. So, on behalf of the Valley’s food lovers, welcome back, Franco.
Diners at Franco’s Italian Caffe
FRANCO’S ITALIAN CAFFE
: 4327 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4:30 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday
: Polenta gorgonzola ($7.50); grilled calamari ($11); grilled vegetables ($10); mozzarella and tomatoes ($10); filet mignon salsa verde ($11); lamb polpettine ($9); curly endive with gorgonzola ($10); fennel and watercress ($10); fettuccine tartufo ($18); linguine with cockles ($15); pasta erbe aromatiche ($15); chicken paillard ($17.50); salmon pistachio ($22); veal chop ($30.50); bistecca Fiorentina ($39); Governor’s Chocolate Cake ($8);
merenghata ($8); hazelnut chocolate tart ($8); mascarpone cheesecake ($8)
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