Franco’s Italian Caffe in Scottsdale, 4 stars

Apr 26, 2013 1141

Way back in the 20th century, before smartphones, iPods and Facebook, Tuscan-born Franco Fazzuoli introduced Valley diners to an unknown foreign cuisine: Italian.

Prior to Franco's arrival, what passed for "Italian" fare in this town was actually Italian-American: fried mozzarella sticks, spaghetti and meatballs, veal parmigiana and sauce-drenched pasta. You'd no more find these dishes in Italy than you would kung pao chicken, borscht and tamales.

Franco shook up our world. Once we got a taste of what Old World Italians actually ate, we were totally smitten. Franco's small restaurant was as packed as the Marx Brothers' stateroom in "A Night at the Opera." His next two locations were just as popular.

In 2006, Franco left town to follow his daughters to New York, where they went to ballet school. He kept his hand in the business, opening a well-received Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village.

Now that his daughters have finished their program, Franco and his longtime chef, Steve Martin, have returned to Scottsdale with Franco's Italian Caffe, armed with the same recipes they brought to town in a covered wagon during the Reagan administration.

But it's 2013, not 1987. The Valley dining scene has been transformed — we're more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable and less easily impressed. Meanwhile, Franco is not only ignoring the calendar, he's thumbing his nose at it. Gazing at the same tried-and-true menu and the same black-and-white photos of Sophia Loren that hung in his first restaurant, you might believe Franco has just awakened from a 26-year nap.

Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter what year, or even what century, it is. While the novelty may have worn off, food this good remains timeless.

The secret to classic Italian cuisine is, of course, no secret: Respect tradition, source great ingredients and maintain their integrity so their flavors come bursting through. It sounds simple. But that kind of artful simplicity is not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

You'll notice the artfulness in every menu category. Take the appetizers, a group that's entirely unoriginal and entirely appealing. Tasty grilled vegetables ($10) are a wise way to edge into dinner, especially if you're planning to make your way through pasta, main dish and dessert. You can almost feel a gentle Mediterranean breeze accompanying the light seafood salad ($13) and the grilled calamari ($11), tickled with lemon and arugula. If you require something to immediately stick to your ribs, the trio of crunchy polenta disks draped with creamy gorgonzola ($7.50) does the job very effectively.

While it's possible to skip the pasta, I can't think of any reason you'd want to. And since you also don't want to pass up the main dishes, it makes sense to make pasta a shared preliminary course.

The superb fettuccine tartufo ($18) is so rich you're almost forced to share, the fresh pasta caressed by an earthy, truffle-scented cream sauce. Listen for the daily pasta special, because it's likely to be a best bet. That proved to be the case with both the squid-ink linguine tossed with crab ($21.50); and malfatti ("poorly made" in Italian), delicate, misshapen dumplings in a well-rounded Bolognese ($16).

Franco may well have been the first to bring risotto to our metropolis, and he hasn't lost his touch. The seafood risotto ($20.50), prepared with shrimp, clams and fish, captures its creamy essence.

Main dishes shine just as brightly. Franco has a way with veal, from the gnaw-to-the-bone chop in mushroom sauce ($30.50) to the orecchie elefante ("elephant's ear"), veal pounded, breaded and fried Milanese-style, topped with tomato and arugula ($30.50).

The kitchen wisely doesn't get in the way of the high-quality fish, such as the buttery, sashimilike tuna mostarda ($22), or one evening's sea-bass special ($26), touched up with tomato sauce and capers.

Don't dismiss Franco's two budget-friendly chicken dishes. I loved the chicken contadina ($18.50) 20 years ago, and my opinion of this rustic mix of chicken, sausage, peppers and onions hasn't changed. And though chicken paillard ($17.50), a pounded breast topped with balsamic-dressed greens, doesn't sound too exciting, it might be just what the doctor ordered if you preceded it with an appetizer and pasta.

What especially bowled me over, however, are two hunky meat dishes. The grilled pork chop ($21.50) is stunning: juicy and tender, freshened with a springtime pea and mint puree. And the affable Franco is justly proud of his magnificent bistecca Fiorentina ($39), a massive, 28-ounce, dry-aged porterhouse, rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. He came over to the table when he saw that my friend had ordered it, and claimed it was better than any $75 steak in town. He might be right.

As with all main dishes, it comes with sides of potato and vegetable. You are not going to leave Franco's hungry.

That's because you'd have to be nuts to skip dessert ($8). There are four, and they deliver a boffo finish.

I'll say flat-out that Franco's mascarpone cheesecake and tiramisu can go toe-to-toe with any cheesecake and tiramisu you've ever had. Former Gov./pastry chef Fife Symington's terrific chocolate cake will never need a presidential pardon. But I'm most taken with the merenghata, a meringue semifreddo flavored with almond and amaretto. The recipe is from Franco's grandmother, and the woman clearly had a gift.

After a bumpy start, Franco's has settled in smoothly. The wine list offers several affordable options — you won't have any complaints about the easy-drinking montepulciano d'Abruzzo for $21. Service is professional. (Two orders of pasta for our group of four were divided in the kitchen onto individual plates.) The bread basket is first-rate, and the California olive oil I dissed after a first-week visit seemed way more vibrant and complex this time around. And how nice that the background decibels you hear come not from a bass-thumping sound system, but from the clatter and chatter of grown-ups having a good time.

For Valley Franco-philes, Franco's Italian Caffe is all the excuse you need to party like it's 1987.

Reach Seftel at howard.seftel@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8533. He dines anonymously and The Republic pays all expenses. Keep up with his blog at seftel.azcentral.com.

By Howard Seftel

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