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.
We could hear the gentle metallic whisking noise as Franco whipped it up for us in the kitchen. It starts with ice cream and berries sitting in the bottom of a glass. Then a magnificent warm custardy pudding, fashioned from egg yolks, wine and sugar, is poured over. It's hard to know whether the cholesterol or sugar in this opulent dessert will get to you first. You can ponder the question over espresso. Franco's has other things going for it besides the food. Instead of employing a snooty maitre d' or bubbleheaded maitre d'bimbette, the restaurant has hired a gracious hostess who juggled crowds of folks with warmth and finesse. Breadcrumbs get swept from the table; the osso buco comes with a tiny fork to get out the marrow; and the proprietor is likely to shake your hand and thank you for your business when you leave. This is big-time Italian. Come soon, in case too much success again forces Franco to throw in the towel.
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Sgghetti's, 5816 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 274-4411. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
If location were the key to restaurant success, Sgghetti's would appear to be in some trouble. Two other Italian places have failed at this address. But location isn't the key. Food is. And Sgghetti's food is good enough to make me think the owners won't have any problems making their monthly payments. The emphasis here is on low-tech southern Italian cooking--pasta, chicken Parmesan, sausage and peppers--dished out at reasonable prices in surprisingly high-tech surroundings.
A well-thought-out antipasto makes a pleasant start, with a lightly dressed combination of four kinds of Italian meats, cheese, tuna, artichokes, olives, tomato and greens. Fresh, warm garlic rolls add to the pleasure. Steamed New Zealand mussels may be less filling, but they're a no less beguiling way to edge into dinner. We had a dozen of them fashioned in a zippy lemon sauce.
Meals come with soup or salad, and it's really no contest as to which you should choose. Go for the superb minestrone, thick with vegetables and flavored with meat. I'd swear this broth had been simmering in a kettle all day, stirred by an Italian mama. But watch out for the bowtie pasta soup. Our waitress warned us against it, but my professional duty obliged me to try it. She was right--it's oddly flavored, pretty close to weird. The main dishes offer the right blend of taste, heft and value. Some of them, like the homemade lasagna and eggplant Parmesan combo, are terrific. The lasagna is a thing of beauty, a thick wedge filled with beef, cheese and spinach, souped up with a vigorous tomato sauce that obviously never saw the inside of a jar. The eggplant is done right, too, maintaining its identity without being fried up into mushy pulp. Veal casino, the most expensive entree at $10.95, is another winner. The reason? A big portion of excellent veal, freshly breaded and fried, moistened in a white wine sauce and heaped with artichoke hearts and garlic. This dish will transport you back to the old neighborhood, even if you didn't come from the old neighborhood. The combo chicken Parmesan, Italian sausage and penne pasta platter is as satisfying as it is filling. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the sausage's mild fragrances and the spicy tomato sauce that juiced up the pasta. Sgghetti's makes its own pastas, a sign that an Italian kitchen takes its responsibilities seriously. Fettuccine formaggio, spinach noodles loaded with thick, creamy cheese sauce, is the kind of dish that nutritional bloodhounds recently called a "heart attack on a plate." I say it's worth the risk. So are the ravioli and gnocchi, although the latter are a tad heavier than optimum. If this all sounds like too much food, there are some lighter alternatives. One is sole dorati, a delicately breaded piece of sole, served with mixed vegetables. Desserts are as effective as the rest of the meal, although it's unlikely you'll have much room left for them. Homemade cannoli and tiramisu are familiar favorites. And there's an interesting imported chocolate mousse confection--light, airy and indisputably chocolaty. Sgghetti's dishes out lots of good, basic Italian food, at a good price, in a pretty setting. If you're anywhere around north central Phoenix, this could become your neighborhood Italian spot.