2009-05-27 / Restaurant of the Week

Da Franco Ristorante Italiano

Da Franco Ristorante Italiano

"Si mangia bene da Franco" means "You eat well at Da Franco Ristorante Italiano" and nothing could be truer. This cozy family restaurant is decorated in warm, terra cotta colors, with plastered walls, wood plank floors and soft lighting. Da Franco just opened less than two weeks ago to the delight of the happy clientele, many of whom live just above the restaurant in the condo building on 21st Street. Owner Franco Spatola, who grew up in Casserta and Palermo in Italy, has spent the last 40 years here in Queens in the restaurant business. Franco also has a very successful mozzarella factory, producing excellent cheese for the restaurant industry. "I make a lotta cheese," says Franco, and lots of it is used in his latest restaurant.

The extensive menu offers virtually anything you could want, from crispy brick oven pizza to handmade pasta to delicious meats, chicken, fish and seafood. A plethora of salads and fresh vegetables rounds out the Mediterranean offerings. Kids, adults, families and couples will all love Da Franco. We started with a platter of perfectly grilled vegetables, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and served with slices of Franco's own smoked mozzarella, which was both buttery and woodsy tasting, and complemented the vegetables. Clams oreganata are very fresh Little Neck clams topped with seasoned bread crumbs and garlic, baked in garlic, lemon and white wine sauce that was swiftly soaked up with wedges of focaccia bread, piping hot from the oven. The clams were garnished with sprigs of fresh thyme leaves…a nice touch. Fresh mussels are prepared with lots of garlic, lemon and white wine for another excellent starter, ideal for sharing ($11.95). An assortment of fried calamari, shrimp and fresh sardines is prepared with a dusting of seasoned flour and quickly fried till golden and crispy. This is a typical dish in Southern Italy and you'll never have sardines as good as these. Tiny balls of handmade mozzarella are tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a classic Italian starter. There are a dozen salads to choose among, some that could constitute a meal, such as the string bean salad with potato, red onion and cherry tomatoes ($9.95). Roasted beets are sliced and served atop mesculin salad with orange zest, pine nuts and crumbled gorgonzola cheese with red wine vinaigrette.

Until the liquor license is approved, the charming manager, Luigi, will happily uncork your bottle of wine at no charge. Your next course ought to be pasta, and even if two people share an order as their next course, Da Franco's pasta should not be missed. Rigatoni Siciliana is prepared with chunks of tender eggplant, a light tomato basil sauce and black olives, topped with shaved sheep's milk cheese ($17.95). Cavatelli pasta is tossed with sautéed broccoli rabe and grilled, sliced sausage for one of my favorite dishes ever. Try a light dish of whole wheat pappardelle ribbon pasta tossed with grilled baby shrimp and organic vegetables sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Toothsome risotto is creamy and especially delicious when made with chunks of tender filet mignon, Portobello mushrooms and port wine ($21.95). Risotto with shrimp and asparagus is the perfect springtime dish. Traditional lasagna is made with a rich, meaty sauce and the chef's agnolotti are stuffed with spinach and served with a pink sauce dotted with salmon chunks and baby shrimp.

Franco personally purchases only the highest quality meats and fish for his restaurant, and the quality is evident in the freshness, tenderness and flavor. The rack of lamb is one of the finest I've had, cooked to absolute perfection with meat that renders easily from the bone, is nearly absent of fat and melts in your mouth. The same can be said for the veal chop, a generous cut, cooked to retain its juices and practically fork-tender. Franco challenges any steak house with his 14-ounce filet mignon prepared with a sauce of shiitake mushrooms, garlic and Barolo wine. The seared rib-eye steak will give anyone a run for their money too, with its supreme texture and flavor. All meat dishes are served with addictive oven-browned potatoes, fresh sautéed vegetables and garnished with sprigs of fresh herbs.

Da Franco's fish and seafood is also of the highest quality and their Branzino, grouper and red snapper cannot be beat. Imagine a fillet of grouper stuffed with fragrant fresh fennel, caramelized onion, mussels, clams and fresh mint, poached in white wine and lemon ($23.95).

House desserts include tiramisu "fatto in casa", Italian cheesecake, chocolate cake and gelato, also available to go at the front of the restaurant. Enjoy your dessert with a rich espresso or cappuccino and call it a day. Da Franco will gladly deliver to your home or office and can provide expert catering services. Da Franco Ristorante Italiano is open seven days a week from noon until 10pm for lunch, dinner and lots of delicious, crispy crust pizza with all your favorite toppings. Da Franco offers fine Italian cuisine for the whole family in a casual, friendly environment. Come to Da Franco where everyone can eat well. Buon appetito!

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