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There's no question why my mom and I have decided to eat at the new Franco's Italian Caffe tonight. We can pretend it's convenience -- the restaurant is located in the Esplanade, arguably the center of the Valley, and other members of our dinner party are driving in from different points east, west, north and south. We can say it's a craving for stunning Italian food -- chef-owner Franco Fazzuoli made quite a name for himself when he owned his original place, the award-winning upscale Franco's Trattoria in north Scottsdale, more than a decade ago.
Except that this isn't the same level of cuisine that made the first Franco's so popular. In this incarnation, the former tiny family restaurant has been transported to a huge setting (the former Roy's). Gone are genteel dishes like complimentary shavings of high-priced Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses, squash-filled tortelloni floating in mascarpone cheese sauce flecked with almonds, or lobster and wild mushroom risotto. This is a more mass-market menu, with tasty but not entirely exciting chicken parmigiana, veal piccata, pizza and rotisserie chicken. All quite nice, but not too different from dozens of other Italian restaurants around town.
So, sure, we can come up with all kinds of excuses to be here if we try hard enough, but the truth is: We've chosen supper at the months-old Franco's because we're hoping to catch a glimpse of ex-Arizona governor J. Fife Symington III.
4327 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Region: Central Scottsdale
602-381-1155. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
I know, it sounds silly. Symington is the pastry chef here. Instead of running the state, he's now running an oven, crafting specialties like chocolate cake, meringue pie, cheesecake and tiramisu. Nothing too radical there -- other local politicians operate restaurants, like councilwoman Mary Rose Wilcox with her El Portal Mexican cafe behind Bank One Ballpark, and Senator Ken Cheuvront with his brand-new Cheuvront Wine Bar on Central south of McDowell.
Except that Symington is special. He's a criminal. Back in 1997, after six years in office, our dubious leader was convicted of federal charges that he defrauded lenders when he was a real estate developer in the 1980s. He finagled millions of dollars in loans by using false financial statements, ultimately leaving investors with bankrupt properties. When he was convicted, he resigned abruptly, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Yet was he punished? Oh, no. His lawyers got him released pronto on appeal, and then, magically, in 2001, he received a pardon from President Clinton. Since then, he's pleaded poverty, unable to pay debts, though somehow finding the funds to attend an expensive culinary school, get his chef's degree, open his own $2 million culinary academy (Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale), and now, become a player in this glittery Italian joint. (His magnificently wealthy wife, Ann, shows up on the paperwork as partner in all the operations.)
All of which would have very little to do with a restaurant review, except that this place is standing-room only, and yet without Symington, I doubt too many serious Italian-food lovers would put Franco's on their A-list. Somehow, criminals are fascinating, and instead of bowing our heads in shame, we're swiveling as if we were at Planet Hollywood in its heyday. My dinner party is not the only goofball group, either -- I hear plenty of other neighboring tables gossiping about how they'd like to score a look-see of this celebrity crook turned cook.
Symington and Fazzuoli have a curious relationship. Back in 1999, Fazzuoli hired the ex-politician as an apprentice in his McCormick Ranch bistro, out of the blue, saying that "everyone deserves a second chance." Symington earned his $8.50 an hour cleaning and doing prep work. Then, in the spring of 2001, Fazzuoli suddenly threw up his hands, slammed the doors shut on his Trattoria and threatened to move to New York.
Phoenix wasn't a restaurant-friendly town, he told me then, and our city's diners weren't sophisticated enough to support Fazzuoli's high-end style of cooking. "They don't know the difference between [Franco's] and a chain," he lamented, adding that he had recently lost a party of seven who were upset that he didn't have spaghetti and meatballs on his menu.
Apparently, none of that bothers the chef now. At the new Franco's, there may not be meatballs, but there is spaghetti with meat sauce. Prices are much more family-friendly, too, topping out at $17 for a pleasant if not dramatically seasoned gamberoni fra diavolo (sautéed shrimp in a broth of garlic, herbs, cayenne and tomatoes). An entire half-chicken is just $12 (expertly roasted with a trace of garlic, rosemary and sage, economically served with roasted vegetables and potato du jour or a side of tomato-basil penne). For only $1.75 more, we can throw in a decent spring green salad studded with tomato wedges, diced carrots and mild vinaigrette. A complimentary breadbasket is fresh-baked, much better than what we would get at Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill.
There's nothing wrong with Franco's that a little more aggressive seasoning couldn't fix. There's a lot of salt-and-pepper-shaker activity going on among the diners, and garlic has pretty much gone missing (garlic bread barely smells of the herb, much less tastes of it). Pasta e fagiolo soup is fine, but lacks the rich intensity I expect from Fazzuoli. The thick broth stocked with pancetta, cannellini beans, onion and a "touch of zest" could use a lot more zest.