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.
Franco's Italian Caffe (lunch/dinner)
2501 East Camelback
Blue Seas salad: $8.50/$9.50
Spinach-ricotta ravioli: $9/$11
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.
Chicken parmigiana is pure mainstream, even if it's made with all-natural poultry from Red Bird Organic Farms -- it's still just uneventful breaded chicken under timid tomato sauce and a slick of mozzarella. A Blue Seas salad is generous with the good calamari, shrimp, albacore and mussels, but a wimpy lemon vinaigrette lets me down. I'm surprised, too, by the lackluster Contadina -- fine chunks of chicken and homemade sausage, rough cut mushrooms and peppers, but a thoroughly dull sauce of balsamic, rosemary and garlic. Chicken paillard is too simple for my tastes, just another breast pounded thin, sautéed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then nested over a salad of mixed greens, onion and tomato. And where are the "zesty" peppers in the seafood linguini, otherwise comforting with huge servings of mussels, calamari and shrimp in a very thin tomato broth?
A few dishes do hint of Franco's famous flair. Caprese is stellar, with perfect rounds of fresh, homemade mozzarella, juicy sliced tomato, basil, olive oil and a mixed green salad. Asparagus are the best of the market, too, blanched crisp, wrapped in lacy-lovely prosciutto and generously dusted with fresh Parmesan. Ravioli doesn't get any better, either, the homemade pasta squares bulging with creamy ricotta and fresh diced spinach, then draped in a terrific beefy meat sauce (get a side of sausage for an interesting meal -- the split, grilled link adds some good spice and texture). I like the pizza a lot, too, made from imported Italian flour, crisp from the wood-fired oven, bubbling with lots of gooey mozzarella, and creatively topped from a long list of fresh favorites (including a questionable "wurstel," which turns out to be hot dog).
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Interestingly, the real stars of the new Franco's are the desserts -- courtesy of Fife himself. I'm floored by how luscious the marenghata is -- it's a frozen cake of baked meringue and amaretto cream; sort of a crunchy-edged cheesecake. The real cheesecake, fashioned with lots of mascarpone, is melt-in-the-mouth marvelous. There's so much alcohol in the tiramisu we'll likely get drunk, our server laughs, and she's right. This is a luxury of liquor, with espresso-dipped ladyfinger cookies, mascarpone cheese, brandy, Kahlúa, bittersweet chocolate and heavy whipping cream. The only confection that seems mundane is, ironically, Symington's signature, "the Governor." It's essentially chocolate cake, silky and fudgy, but no fireworks.
If Symington had gone away, likely it would have been to one of those cushy Club Fed prisons. My dining buddy and I are joking that instead of penance, doing time at these joints is a networking opportunity. "You sit around with other big shots, compare notes, figure out how to commit the crime better so you don't get caught next time," we laugh.
I figure that's a little bit of what's going on at Franco's, where, on one seemingly quiet Wednesday night, I find the place brimming with very recognizable past and present real estate moguls. Fife and Ann are there, surprisingly low-key at a bar table, but still making the rounds, shaking hands, hugging, patting backs and jokingly asking us how we like "the poison." The couple shows up even at lunch; they know their roles in the operation.
And actually, after several visits, I decide, I do like Franco's just fine. The place feels good. For these low prices, with this quality of ingredients and with this fancy ambiance, it sure beats any of those typical chain operations Fazzuoli so loathes. Besides, we're not really here for the food anyway, are we?