Always a sucker for good comfort food, I find myself craving certain cuisines to help satisfy my need for getting that warm, fuzzy feeling all over from a nice plate of food. Usually, I try to find some place that serves home cooking or a good Mexican combo plate with lots of gooey cheese.
Then, there is the comfort of a nice big plate of quality Italian food. I had been having that craving for about two days, and a Chicken Caesar Salad for lunch just wasn't cutting it. I decided to see if my friend Dave would be willing to go for Italian food. He consented and suggested I select the establishment. Well, I wanted something different and I thought that Franco's Italian Caffe at the Esplanade in the Phoenix Biltmore area would fit the bill.
I chose Franco's because a month or so ago, I went there for a private party/catered dinner and the food was decent. But catered affairs do not make for good reviews unless people are there for, well, catering.
Dave and I arrived for dinner about 8:15 PM. As always, parking at the Esplanade is a bit unnerving because the parking garages are scattered and multi-floored and you have to pay to park if you don't get your ticket validated. I parked the car and Dave and I headed into Franco's. (The Esplanade does offer valet parking, but it costs $4.00.)
The hostess seated us right away at a table in the middle of the restaurant. The place is clean, subdued, polished and broken into several sections. The best part about the space is that it is very roomy. You are not seated inches away from the people at the next table. The airy feel made for a much more pleasant experience. The only drawback was that the ceiling is warehouse style with decorative panels hanging from the ceiling and, therefore, the noise was a bit oppressive. It is very attractive inside, but by the end of the meal, I just wanted a quiet place.
We took our seats and was presented with menus and then a tray of assorted, hot breads. Dave and I dutifully poured our olive oil in our dish and started the dipping process. The bread was fresh and hot. The olive oil was top quality and we both indulged in some balsamic vinegar as well. We also ordered soft drinks.
Dave and I reviewed the menu and had a tough time making up our minds. The pizzas looked grand and the pasta dishes were calling my name as well. In the end, we chose our entrees and decided to split an appetizer.
The appetizer choice was a no-brainer. We both latched onto the Prosciutto and Spinach Bruschetta ($10.00). We each ordered the House Salad ($5.00 each) and then Dave went with the Chicken Parmesan ($17.50) and I jumped at the chance to try their Chicken Tortelloni ($12.75).
About 15 minutes passed when we got our appetizer. On the plate sat six pieces of bruschetta, all of which were one-bite sized. I popped one of the morsels into my mouth and it was outstanding. The toast was crisp, hot and buttery. The spinach had been successfully cooked to remove any bitterness and the prosciutto strip was chewy and flavorful. These were excellent.
After our appetizer had finished, Dave excused himself from the table and then a floor show erupted in front of me and the other 30 or so customers in the restaurant. There was a sudden "crack" that silenced some of the noise in the room and suddenly the person I thought was the manager started shouting at two of the waitstaff. I wasn't entirely clear what the issue was, but it was uncomfortable for everyone in the room, to say the least. For the next three to four minutes, the manager was doing lots of arm waving and finger pointing before slamming down a tray on a table near the kitchen producing an identical "crack" to the first one I heard. He then stormed off.
This was just a singularly odd moment, simply because my visceral reaction was to shaky my head and think of the old adage "correct in private and praise in public." Whatever the issue was, I thought the scene was extremely unprofessional. I am sure I was not the only person in the restaurant to feel that way. The sad part is that the person who I thought was the manager turned out to be the owner, Franco. Sure, it is his restaurant and he can do what he wants, but this was truly not classy in any way, shape or form.
Dave returned and I filled him in on the festivities and we watched the owner storm back and forth around the restaurant while we waited for our salads. Our salads arrived and they were fine - nothing special here. Iceberg lettuce, some romaine, carrots and a non-descript Italian dressing were presented on a small plate. It was decent, but nothing about it stood out.
We waited for our entrees and asked for some additional bread to pass the time. Our entrees arrived on large plates. Dave's Chicken Parmesan was a small, flattened, boneless breast piece covered in a beautiful red sauce, accompanied by a small serving of Penne pasta, also covered in the same red sauce. My plate was served and before me sat seven tortelloni, each about the size of a quarter. They were in a creamy, Alfredo sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
I dove into my dish and each tortelloni was a mixture of ground chicken, bread crumbs and asiago cheese wrapped in a delicate totelloni wrapper. The taste was good, but like the salads, there was just nothing there to grab my tastebuds. The sauce was tasty, but when combined with the Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, it was quite salty.
Dave reported that his meal was "okay." I tried a piece of his chicken and it was, indeed, okay. What surprised me, though, was the sauce. Although it looked pretty with its glistening red color, the sauce was very bland. What you tasted was tomatoes... and only tomatoes. It was a dissapointment for Dave since Chicken Parmesan is his favorite Italian dish.
After we finished our meals, Dave asked if I wanted dessert or should we stop for Gelato at The Gelato Spot. I went with the latter.
We got our bill and the total, including tax, was $50.60. Dave gave me his take on the restaurant as we climbed the steps of the parking garage back to out vehicle. "Service was inattentive and the portion size was meager. Overall, with the exception of the appetizer, the food was bland." There it is in a nutshell. For $50, we got a less than satisfying meal.
I really wanted Franco's to be stellar. The space and location are primo and the place clearly has premium prices to help cover those costs. However, what struck me was that for 40% less money, Dave and I could have had a good, filling, Italian meal at Red Devil.
So, I am still having that craving for comfort food and disappointed that Franco's couldn't fit the bill.
Franco's Italian Caffe
2501 East Camelback Road (in the Esplanade)
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Notes: Take your parking ticket with you for validation by the restaurant.