We pass by this place about 4 times a day. For the past year it's been a running joke between my wife and I..."Hey let's go to Franco's" we would joke while pulling into the diner next door. Maybe it was the strip mall location, who knows...but in any case, we braved it and went tonight to find out once and for all. One of my new years resolutions is to try more local places that I've overlooked. This place is .75 miles from my house.
Now, I'm kinda kicking myself for not trying it a year ago. We really pre-judged this place pretty unfairly. It was a really good experience with good food and great service! We came in at about 8:45 on a Saturday night, and there was one other couple finishing up dinner. It's in a small strip mall, and the place inside is nice. It's casual, but quaint. It actually reminded me of traditional trattorias we frequented in Italy. We came in jeans and a tshirt. The kitchen is an open little kitchen, and there are about 10-15 tables. It seems like a family run place and is not the typical casual pizza/italianamerican place I had thought it was. (actually, they don't serve pizza). We were still skeptical, so we played it somewhat safe with the food ordering. The menu is a mix of common Italian american staples, with a few traditional Italian dishes in there too. The waitress brought out some bread and bruscetta with our drinks.
We ordered the Tortellini in Brodo and Mozzarella in Carroza to start.
We both loved the tortellini in brodo. We spent a month in Italy in Sept. of last year and we had some really fantastic tortellini in brodo in Bologna. Since we returned we've been trying to find something that comes close, and so far, this is the closest. The Mozzarella in Carroza was good too.
For main we both ordered pasta. I ordered the Orecchiette with Sausage and Brocolli Rabe, and my wife ordered the Rigatoni alla Franco (shrimp, crabmeat, and shallots in a blush vodka sauce). My Orecchiette dish was really good flavor wise, but the pasta wasn't Orecchiette. I'm not sure if they ran out of Orecchiette and substituted or what, but I got what seemed like un-tied bowties. (for lack of a better description). I didn't bother to ask as it was still good. Other than that, the dish was great. The sausage (sweet, not hot) was good. My wife loved her dish, shrimp were fresh and cooked well. (and big too). I'd say the portions are on the big side. You could probably split a pasta dish.
The service was great. Granted, we were the only table in the place, but our waitress was very attentive, my drink never was empty.
So, at this point, my wife and I are feeling kind of like idiots and pretentious food snobs for judging this place for almost a year without trying it, but we decided we'd see if they can make a real cappuccino (not the over sized garbage most places serve) and espresso. Both were good.
Our bill came to 56$. All in all, we'll be back and I highly recommend it. The food was really good. I get the feeling it's the kind of place where the Chef/Owner really cares about the food. Kind of a hidden gem. If I could compare the feel of this place to any other place in NJ it would be similar to Shirin Cafe in Manalapan or Sophies Bistro in Somerset. Check out this place, it was sad to see that we were the only ones in there on a Saturday night, yet crappy Olive Garden and Carrabbas down the street were packed. I just don't get it. I'm guessing most people are like us, and just haven't given it a shot yet.
Its a BYO. (but P.S. There is GREAT wine store on rt. 18 close by too, behind the pathmark next to the A&P, http://www.marketplacewines.com/)
If I had to gripe about anything, it would be the bread. It wasn't great, (I like a good, crusty bread) and the bread for the bruscetta wasn't toasted at all. That, and that my orecchiette wasn't orecchiette. (oh yeah, and the parsley rimmed plates are a little tacky)
I know it might sound silly, and you all might think I'm crazy, but If they put cacio e pepe on the menu, I'd feel like I was back in Italy in a Roman Trattoria.
Franco's Italian Kitchen
552 State Route 18, East Brunswick, NJ 08816