A bottle of red, a bottle of white

Franco’s Ristorante Italiano serves it right

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Franco’s “World Famoso” Spaghetti

Little Italy in downtown Dayton

Though it wasn’t the song that was playing, it was impossible not to hear the strains of that Billy Joel classic as PIP (Palate In Progress) and I walked through the dining room at Franco’s Ristorante. A downtown Dayton fixture since opening in 1976, Franco’s has changed little since then. Picture a cozy, dimly lit dining room with spacious black vinyl booths, the smell of garlic wafting and the sound of Italian crooners in the background. The only thing missing were checkered tablecloths. I swear I could have been in any little place in Boston’s North End, but PIP was even more nostalgic. Coming from northeast Ohio, where everyone’s name ends in a vowel, he felt like he was home—at least from the atmosphere we were enveloped in. The food remained to be tasted. That’s where we met Moose.

Red sauce rules

Moose, our waiter and tour guide for the evening, oversaw our food choices and regaled us with tales of Italy, the restaurant and Owner Franco Germano. But the name, Moose? He wasn’t particularly physically imposing, so I had to ask.

“It comes from my name—Massullo.”

PIP asked Moose for his recommendation for the Calamari appetizer ($9). Franco’s offers it two ways: deep fried with cocktail sauce or in an arrabiata-style marinara.

“A lot of people, they go for the fried,” says Moose. “But I’m telling you the marinara is what you want.”

And we did want it. Lots of it. PIP claimed not to care if he ate anything else that night, it was so good. Tender calamari chunks bathed in a zesty sauce that tasted like it had simmered all day, concentrating the sweet and hot flavors.

The Bocconcini Alla Caprese ($9) I ordered was a pleasant surprise, with ripe red tomatoes. It’s something I usually don’t order once summer is over, but I couldn’t pass up the fresh-made mozzarella. Franco’s serves it with artichokes, olives and an herbed olive oil. PIP was on a tomato roll, diving in to a cup of Tomato Bisque, the soup of the day. Finding it savory and rich, he spooned it up contentedly as we listened to Moose describe his Italian home, and advise us on further menu items.

Pasta-bilities

We mulled over the menu, which features all manner of an Italian American restaurant’s greatest hits from Calves’ Liver and Veal Marsala to a dozen different pastas and sauces to choose from.

“How’s the Braciole?” I ask.

Braciole, a thin pounded steak, stuffed and rolled, cooked with sauce is one of my Italian go-to’s.

“Well you know everyone’s mamma makes it different, but ours is pretty good,” assured Moose. “It’s got egg and sausage and carrots and celery,”

It was served with a side of spaghetti and red sauce. Sold, except for one problem: Franco’s “World Famoso” Spaghetti. When something is on the menu with that accolade, you have to go with it. It’s described as a combination of egg, romano cheese, roasted garlic and olive oil. Mushrooms or Franco’s special sausage can also be added. I wanted to try that spaghetti and the braciole, and Moose understood my conflict.

He leaned in conspiratorially. “I think we can do something about that.” He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The fix is in

PIP found himself in the same situation. Feeling like he had returned home with the taste of Franco’s arrabiatta, he wanted to try all the sauces. A big old plate of red sauce ravioli was what he needed, but what about fettucini alfredo? And maybe a meatball? He had to know, and Moose could fix it for him. For a price. Both of our off-the-menu enhancements came with an expected and reasonable up charge. Our goal was to sample as much of Franco’s lineup as we could, and we were glad we did. Both the red sauce with chunks of celery and onion, and the sweet, creamy alfredo were satisfying. The meatball was tender, possibly poached to achieve soft texture. And Franco’s “World Famoso” Spaghetti?  I’ll be going back for an entree-sized bowl, this time adding the sausage and maybe mushrooms.

Deliciously diverted

I was so in the moment and full of the joy that a satisfying meal (and some chianti) provides, I forgot to photograph the cannoli ($6) we had for dessert. It was the crisp-shelled and creamy centered delight I anticipated. I am certain I would be forgiven for my lapse, and even applauded by any food loving Italian for allowing food to make me forget about everything else.

I didn’t meet The Franco that night, but I had the urge to invite myself along to one of the golf outings he and Moose go on together. I don’t golf, I just want to hang out and hear the stories these guys tell. And maybe, just maybe, worm that world famous spaghetti recipe out of Franco. As we left, PIP and I decided to continue the vibe of our Italian-themed evening by going home to watch The Godfather on Netflix. He smiled at me as he said, “I’ll meet you anytime you want at our Italian restaurant.”

Franco’s Ristorante Italiano is located at 824 E. Fifth St. in Dayton. For more information, please call 937.222.0204 or visit francos-italiano.com

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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