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Within a block of John Wayne Airport, inside one of Irvine's many banal food courts, you'll find Franco's Pasta Cucina -- the gleaming pearl in a sea of heat-lamp and chafing-dish mediocrity.
Acting on a tip whispered to me by fellow food blogger Deb of Dinner at Six, I found the man himself dressed crisply in chef's whites, presiding in a kitchen no larger than a prison cell.
With a booth plastered with glossies of the chef in younger days -- standing beside political dignitaries like Clinton and Kissinger and his arms around Hollywood luminaries like Stallone and NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz -- Franco is otherwise an unassuming gentleman within reach of his sixties, with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair.
Although his pedigree seems more apropos to establishments with wine-bottle candles and red-checkered tablecloths, during the office-park lunch rush that occurs every weekday, Franco performs in a one-man-show which can only be described as "magic by pasta."
Up his sleeves are unexpected things such as salmon, feta, and yellowtail, which he juggles with rigatoni, fettucine, linguine, and gnocchi. Tossed in a saute pan, and coaxed by his deft hand, these disparate ingredients coalesce into masterpieces worthy of a thousand Mario Batalis.
But at $8.00 for a pasta dish, salad, garlic bread, and soda, his creations are offered for a price that won't even cover valet parking at Mozza.
An instant favorite is the "linguine with clams in a light spicy clam sauce," where generous fistfuls of the chopped bivalve is folded into a buttery concentrate redolent of sweet garlic and dotted with freshly shorn Italian parsley. Perfectly cooked linguine is then added to the mix, tossed until every inch of the noodle is sluiced with flavors of the briny deep.
This wonderful pasta dish made me rejoice that stuck with us Irvinites in food court purgatory -- amongst gloppy orange chicken and limp pizzas -- is a world-class chef like Franco, who can magically transport us to Italy, if only just until he closes up shop at 2:00 pm.
Franco's Pasta Cucina
2222 Michelson Dr Ste 206
Irvine, CA 92612