Monday, May 16, 2011
Hartford Food Guy Reviews: Francesco's
The Hartford Food Guy returns to reviews Francesco's, located on 318 Franklin Ave, right across from a former Sad City living spot. We once tried to eat at Francesco's on a Monday but the place had just closed just before we arrived. We ended up instead at the closed bar with Francesco's staff and followed that up with a trip to Bowl-O-Rama. Who needs 24 hour bowling on a Monday night? Apparently Francesco's staff.
Franklin Avenue is not really a true "Little Italy" anymore. There are very few Italian-Americans who live on and just off the avenue these days and the number of Italian-American businesses continues to dwindle. It seems like every time I go there another restaurant has closed and/or another small shop has changed ownership and is no longer an Italian-American establishment.
That said, there are still a number of great Italian bakeries and restaurants on Franklin Avenue and Francesco's Ristorante is chief among them. Now, I know that Carbone's is widely regarded the king (or Don) of Franklin Avenue, but for me and for my Italian-American wife, Francesco's is the place to go. Indeed, Francesco's is one of the few Italian restaurants to which my wife will go ("why should I pay money to eat something that's not as good as what I make you for dinner?").
The HFG was turning 43 and to celebrate we decided to go to Francesco's. Being a Saturday night we made a reservation, which is an absolute must. In fact, the one time we showed up without a reservation we were lucky to get seated in the bar area and then only because we go there quite a bit and are known to the owner and the staff.
While I know that we get well-treated because we go there quite a bit, the service at Francesco’s is always very good and we were made to feel special beginning with the very first time we set foot in the place. The staff at Francesco’s is friendly, attentive, and hardworking; but never overbearing or obnoxious.
We started with two appetizers. The first was a special; roasted eggplant with mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto over a bed of greens. It was outstanding. The eggplant was perfectly cooked and well-complimented (but not overwhelmed) by the mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto. Similarly, the mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto were all fresh.
Our second appetizer was what I think is Francesco’s signature appetizer; the hot seafood antipasti for two ($16). This is an extremely generous portion of fried calamari, clams casino, stuffed mushroom caps, and a couple of very large shrimp wrapped in prosciutto. It also comes with a very, very, very hot red pepper which is not, under any circumstances whatsoever, for the uninitiated or the faint of heart (or stomach). The calamari are always perfectly fried and the cocktail sauce is tasty (and not some bland, watered down tomato paste) and the shrimp really are quite delicious.
Because we had two rather large appetizers we decided to skip the salad course, but when tomatoes are in season, you have to try to the Sicilian salad ($11), which is fresh tomatoes, kalamata, vidali onions, and fresh green peppers tossed in a homemade virgin olive oil dressing with basil (:> x 5).
For dinner, my wife had the clams and calamari fra diavlo ($29); i.e. clams and squid over linguini and in a spicy marinara sauce. It is sometimes hard to get excited about marinara sauce because it really has become a common element in American cuisine, but Francesco’s marinara sauce is fresh and has a wonderful taste but which is not so powerful as to overwhelm the clams and calamari. I know $29 is not cheap for an entrée, but given the quality and given the extremely generous portion, it is a very fair price.
I had one of the specials for dinner; chicken served in large chunks and with a slight demi glaze, together with sausage, peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and capers in a red vinaigrette. It reminded me of a dish my wife likes to make once and while (pork chops with vinegar-soaked peppers) and while I am partial to Mrs. HFG’s cooking, this was simply amazing as the blend of flavors was great and the vinaigrette gave it a wonderful kick.
The only (minor) criticism I had is that it is served with a side of penne a la vodka but would have been better-matched had it been served over a bed of penne (or linguini or spaghetti) so that the pasta could have soaked in the vinaigrette mixed with the demi-glaze. Happily, however, when I told the waiter my thought, he said they serve this dish as a lunch special from time to time and it is served at lunch over pasta (memo to file, take a lunch at Francesco’s in the next 30 days).
In fact, one of the great things about Francesco’s is its specials, which rotate regularly and which are definitely a strength. My philosophy at Francesco’s is I assume that I am going to have a special and it is only if I am not drawn to one do I look at the regular menu.
Francesco’s is very much an old school Italian-American restaurant (even though it hasn’t been around that long) and if going to Carbone’s is like being in the Godfather (which it can be), going to Francesco’s is like being in Good Fellas – 20 years more modern but every bit as authentically Italian-American. In fact, there are numerous veal, beef, chicken, and pasta offerings and all the traditional favorites, from lobster ravioli (:> x 10) to veal picatta. And, like a lot of such places (such as Casa Bella down in New Jersey, which I reviewed last year) it occupies quite well a stratum between fine dining and neighborhood cooking.
Sometimes for desert we walk across the street to Mozzicato's and have gelato, but Francesco's has a number of sumptuous cakes and other very nice deserts. Last night, however, we skipped desert and went home and had some of the magnificent carrot cake my wife made for my birthday (:> x 10,000) – just about the best birthday present the HFG could get!