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Franco's Trattoria, 8120 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 948-6655. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close.
There are more Italian restaurants in the Valley than any other ethnic type, at all points of the price scale. At the upper end, I don't think any of them is better than Franco's Trattoria. But is this praise good news for Franco Fazzuoli, the Florentine proprietor? After all, he's played to full houses of satisfied customers before, but still closed down his popular Valley restaurant, claiming he couldn't make a go of it in his cramped quarters.
It's taken him a year to find another, larger location and get it up and running. This time around, he's found a more appealing spot, a large, airy room with a bustling, casually sophisticated feel that seems perfectly teamed to the fare. Let's hope these larger digs give him the economies of scale his former restaurant venture lacked. Because with this kind of scintillating northern Italian food, he won't be looking at many empty tables this time around, either. The fun begins moments after you're seated. That's when the server heads to the wheels of cheese at the front of the room and shaves off generous strips of expensive parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino Romano, and brings them to the table with a basket of focaccia and fresh bread. If you didn't know what was coming, you might be content to order a glass of wine and call it a night. Franco likes to roam the room and tell customers about how he refuses to follow his accountant's advice to cut back on this expensive cheese touch. Not surprisingly, he gets supportive feedback: Everyone sides with the proprietor, not the bean counter. Well, if the accountant is unhappy over the profligacy with cheese, I imagine he'll probably be near-suicidal when he finds out about his client's propensity to dispense free dishes. It started when my pal gushed about the bread and cheese. The beaming owner rushed off, to return with an appetizer plate bursting with Italian flavors: grilled Portobello mushroom; roasted red peppers; homemade mozzarella and tomato doused with olive oil and basil; braesola, paper-thin preserved raw beef topped with slivers of Parmesan; and an irresistible scoop of lemon-tinged seafood salad. When the check came, I noticed we hadn't been charged for it, so we called Franco over. "That's all right," he said, smiling. "Now you come back." Is this any way to run a restaurant? You bet it is. You won't get cheated even if you have to pay for your appetizers. Insalata capricciosa features a tasty mix of arugula, radicchio, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans, tossed with fennel and goat cheese. The bocconcini brings mozzarella and tomato alongside mouth-watering slices of prosciutto. Diners are advised to wear loose-fitting garments. This will permit a couple comfortably to share and savor a pasta or rice course between appetizer and entree. The risotto, a highly labor-intensive rice dish that requires a half-hour notice, is worth the wait. Franco's version brims with the heady scents of porcini mushrooms, garlic and tomato. One evening's pasta special, homemade taglierini (narrow, flat noodles, like junior-size fettuccine), comes bathed in a rich cream sauce studded with chicken. This is good enough to turn you on to carbohydrate-loading even if you don't plan on running any marathons. Make sure you come here armed with enough conversational nuggets to make it through dinner. Otherwise, there's a danger that you might spend main-course time with your eyes glued to the plate, grunting with delight. Most entrees range from $14 to $20, and you won't find any that don't give you your money's worth. Veal is the northern Italian animal-protein choice, and Franco's does a masterful job with it. Orecchie d'elefante is so named because it seems to be as massive as an elephant's ear. It's veal pounded to millimeter-thinness, breaded, fried and splayed across a huge plate. Then the meat is coated with a bucketful of tomatoes and shallots, and sprinkled with basil and a touch of lemon. It's so alluring that I doubt even the world's most gifted conversationalist could have diverted me from my dining task. Osso buco, wine-braised veal shank, is an occasional special that's worth planning an evening around. As you'd expect, the meat is fork-tender, and the sauce heartily flavored. Sop it up with the side of polenta. Carrots and asparagus, meanwhile, provide some crunch and color.
If Italy is known for one beef dish, it's bistecca Fiorentina. Franco's marriage of Tuscan seasonings and quality American beef should find an appreciative audience of local carnivores. The restaurant uses a huge, 17-ounce Black Angus porterhouse, coated with a touch of olive oil and sizzlingly cooked to specs. My steak-loving pal was breathless with adoration. No doubt someone in your group will insist on chicken, usually the most boring entree choice. But Franco's chicken contadina refused to live down to my expectations. That's because boneless, skinless chicken breast gets to keep company with fragrant homemade sausage, mushrooms and peppers, rustically scented with garlic and rosemary. Roasted potato and cauliflower round out this first-rate $14.25 platter. One of the surest signs that a restaurant wants to be taken seriously is the presence of homemade desserts. And Franco's tiramisu and raspberry-and-mascarpone-cheese cannoli merit serious consideration. But they can't top the zabaglione for two.