I rarely eat in Italian restaurants. Raised on basic Italian fare, I'm put off by menus featuring chicken parmigiani and "gourmet" versions of pasta fagioli (peasant food, made with white beans and macaroni in a watery tomato broth, but invariably Italian-Americanized with veal and a half-dozen vegetables in the pretentious "Italian" diners that serve it).
Franco's Italian Café is an exception I am always happy to make. Offering a sophisticated cuisine both rustic and refined, this posh Scottsdale restaurant's tired décor (exposed ductwork; big black-and-white framed photos of Italian movie stars) is less kitsch or bad planning than an homage to our recent culinary past, when Franco's was a mainstay of fine Italian dining.
In 1987, Tuscan-born Franco Fazzuoli wowed us with simple, elegant dishes at Franco's Trattoria, which eventually relocated to the Esplanade and became Franco's Italian Caffe (and where former-governor-turned-pastry-chef Fife Symington provided baked goods). When his daughters headed to New York to study ballet, Franco followed, leaving us in 2006 and opening a popular Greenwich Village restaurant. He returned to Scottsdale last year, bringing with him longtime chef Steve Martin and many of the same recipes he prepared for us at his earlier restaurants.
Martin's current menu offers five courses: antipasti, insalata, pasta, secondi, and dolce. The star of the antipasto platter, which changes almost daily, is the thick, tender tuna carpaccio, smeared with sharp horseradish mustard. This moist, sturdy hunk of fish is more like good sushi than a traditional, thin-shaved carpaccio. It's paired with an equally hearty beef carpaccio, more tender than a conventional luncheon meat cut. Other highlights, all piled on a bed of fresh arugula that complements several of the items nicely, are marinated artichoke hearts; a sharp, thin-shaved, hard cheese; and a runny burrata, a southern Italian cousin of mozzarella that's a perfect accompaniment to a fire-roasted red pepper (and wasn't half bad spread on the fresh assortment of breads that launched our meal, either). I almost skipped the passé prosciutto-wrapped melon, but a dining companion insisted I try it. I'm glad he did. It was the perfect palate cleanser that had me wondering where anyone finds such fresh honeydew this late in the season.
The modest serving of Gorgonzola polenta proved a perfect pairing with the antipasto. Resting on another bed of arugula, its creamy texture was amped up with a sharp bite of cheese.
Franco's Caesar salad is among the best I've had, tossed with lemony dressing and an ample pile of robust anchovies, slightly sweet and oily. The beet arugula salad marries a fresh combo of green beans, zucchini, red onion, and feta with slightly sweet cubed golden beets.
Pastas are, of course, housemade. The fettuccine tartufo is a dense, truffle-infused thing of beauty, thick with a rich, cream-based sauce clinging to delicious, thick, eggy ribbons of pasta. The seafood risotto, prepared with shrimp, calamari, and tuna, is a primer on the perfect risotto. Every flavor -- fishes, a briny seafood reduction, creamy risotto -- could be had in every bite, and the calamari was just right: chewy and buoyant.
I ate mostly pastas on my initial visit but gave in to the stunning seafood and meat list during a memorable late-night dinner. The veal chop came nicely charred outside, and perfectly pink inside, and was tender and flavorful, thanks to a generous dose of fragrant mushrooms and a demi-glace reduction. The chicken paillard also was expertly executed: a simple breast pounded tender, dressed with greens and drizzled with balsamic.
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Although I skipped the pasta course this time, meaning to leave room for dessert, I'd also made repeat trips to the bread basket and barely had room for Franco's mother's merenghata, a weightless frozen combination of a meringue and a semifreddo. Crunchy, cold, and sweet, it struck a high note at the end of an already stunning meal.
Martin's food is delicious, sure, but it's the warm welcome offered by Franco's staff that truly elevates this Scottsdale Road restaurant. On each of my visits, the service left as great an impression as the tasty food. One of Franco's beautiful ballerina daughters was our waitress when I tucked in for a late supper with friends; her learned but unpretentious help steered me toward better wine pairings and made me feel like an old friend of the family. An obnoxious and very noisy table of drunks braying away in the corner (who kept shrieking accolades for "that movie with Roberto Mussolini -- what was it called? ?") were treated by staff with the same courtesy as were my more civil dining companions and I. It's a testament to Franco's cuisine and warm reception that not even an hour of insufferable hollering can taint it in my memory.
Franco's Italian Cafe 4327 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale www.francosscottsdale.com 480-481-7614 Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday