Franco’s Italian Caffe feels as if it was lifted from a venerable Italian neighborhood in New York and plopped down in Old Town Scottsdale.
It’s a small dining spot—owner Franco Fazzuoli, who handles all bookings personally, jotting customers’ names in a big black book on a tall desk by the front door, says he’ll only accept 20 customers per half hour so the tiny kitchen can keep up the quality.
“Everything is to order, so they take time,” he says.
The setting is intimate, dark and cozy, with large black-and-white photos evoking Italy of the ’50s. Sinatra would be at home here. And the family from “Moonstruck.” And me.
Some of his customers have followed him from New York, Fazzuoli says. “One guy used to eat at my place in New York all the time. He bought a house in Mesa for the winter, and he comes here.”
Fazzuoli, a native of Florence, has been welcoming people to his restaurants, here and in New York City, since his first, Il Ponte Vechio, opened its doors in 1975. While his restaurants have won praise from Zagat, TripAdvisor, Gourmet Magazine, the New York Times and reviewers here in the Valley, his was an accidental career.
“I didn’t like too much to go to school,” he says. “I always played hooky. My father found out and to punish me he sent me to work as a dishwasher at a grand hotel in Florence. I was 14, 15 years old. When I was there, everybody liked me because I was a skinny little kid and I did my job the best I can. The chef said, ‘Do you want to learn to cook?’ And I said, ‘Yes, teach me,’ so after two months he sent me to learn to do salad. I loved it.
“After that, my dad, he said ‘I hope you got the lesson,’ and I said, ‘Dad, it really was not so bad, I actually liked it and I made some money.’ I came back and Giuseppe, the head chef, started teaching me how to cook.”
Fazzuoli’s mother also was a profound influence on his cooking, and many of her recipes have found their way on the menu. Stephen Martin, Fazzuoli’s colleague for more than two decades, learned some of the dishes during frequent stays with Fazzuoli’s mother in Florence.
Franco and a partner opened his first restaurant in Florence, and it hummed along successfully until it literally was washed away by the flood that caused massive damage there in 1966.
“After that I couldn’t get a good job,” he says. “I packed up my suitcase and went to New York in 1967. I worked three jobs and saved my money, and I opened Il Ponte Vechio. The first six months I couldn’t get a liquor license. The people who give the licenses thought I got the money from the mob, because the head of one mob family lived one street behind my restaurant and came to eat there all the time. But one judge, who was in charge of immigration in the city, liked to eat in my restaurant. He knew that I worked and saved the money, and he say, ‘I’ll take care of you. Next week you have a liquor license.’ After that, my place exploded.”
In subsequent years, Fazzuoli opened another restaurant, Zinno, in Greenwich Village. The combination of great food and jazz was an instant success. Fazzuoli quotes a New York magazine that said of Zinno, “No matter what the kitchen does with pasta, it’s splendid.”
There’s a lot more to Fazzuoli’s story, involving more restaurants, moves to Arizona and to New York and back, but I really need to tell you about the pasta, and the rest of Fazzuoli’s terrific menu, so I’ll compress the rest and just say that, happily for Arizonans, he opened Franco’s Italian Caffe four years ago and says this will be his last move.
The food at Franco’s is deceptively simple, traditional Tuscan cuisine with forthright, clean flavors served up by a cadre of old pro servers in long black aprons. They know every detail of the menu specials, as well as the excellent, if abbreviated, wine list, and are happy to guide diners.
These days, Fazzuoli handles the front of the house while Martin heads up the line cooking.
Here’s a recent evening’s dining, just to give you a taste.
We started with burrata, its mozzarella shell opened to reveal a creamy center topped with black caviar and served with tomatoes. New Zealand green-lipped mussels, the plumpest and most succulent I’ve ever sampled, were next, happily paired with a delectable tomato sauce fortified with fish stock.
Next came a sampler of three of the restaurant’s signature pastas: Pappardelle in wild boar ragù, fettucine in truffle-laced cream and Strozzapreti pasta with cream, prosciutto, leeks and herbs. I would have been happy with any of the three as a main course, but this last was a knock-out. The pasta (the name means “strangle the priest,” of all things) was perfectly cooked and the sauce beautifully balanced with leeks and ham—a dish that demonstrates this kitchen’s deft hand with classic, deceptively simple dishes.
Main courses were lamb chops with grilled polenta and vegetables—four juicy chops marinated in olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, garlic and herbs and served with silky demi-glace; and impeccably fresh and succulent sea bass in a beautifully seasoned tomato sauce. We didn’t have it this night, but I can testify that the veal scaloppine—available in several variations each night—also is spectacular.
I didn’t think we would have room for dessert, but somehow we made headway through three favorites: mascarpone cheesecake scented with lemon, a flourless Governor’s Chocolate Cake that defines decadence, and—the standout in my mind—Merenghata, frozen feathery meringue layered between more meringue, this in creamy, crispy layers.
Coffee and Limoncello topped off the meal.
What more can I say? Perhaps Fazzuoli himself says it best: “When you come to Franco’s you get something special.”
Franco’s Italian Caffe, 4327 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480.481.7614, francosscottdale.com.