The best way to know that you are going to get great food at a new restaurant is to find a restaurant where the chef is also the owner. Such is the case with the wonderful-in-every-way Francesco’s Ristorante & Pizzeria in Maitland. Named for (another good indicator) Francesco Aiello, who comes to us from Palermo, Sicily, the restaurant is truly his passion. Chef Francesco is there from 9 a.m. to late each evening, personally plating each entrée and overseeing a staff that obviously adores him.
And I am happy to report that I adored everything I tasted from this extensive and very Italian menu.
Francesco came by his love of cooking having begun at an early age watching his father, a pastry chef, cook at home. He attended the Istituto Alberghiero culinary school in Palermo where he specialized in fish, seafood and risotto.
And now his new restaurant – Francesco’s – is adding luster to the growing restaurant row that is happening on Orlando Avenue (U.S. Highway 17-92) in Maitland. Before I get to the food, however, I have to comment on the taste with which this beautiful restaurant is designed. The look is straight out of Tuscany, with high ceilings, massive hanging beams, whitened brick walls, heavy dark woods and a mix of chandeliers that range from copper buckets to drop crystal. Seating is a choice between booths, tables and an open kitchen with bar seating that places you just inches from all that is happening in the kitchen. The design details certainly add to the fine dining experience without raising the prices on this affordable menu.
Francesco's Ristorante & Pizzeria is at 400 S. Orlando Ave. (U.S. Highway17-92) in Maitland. Because the entrance is in the back of the building (not facing the street), turn on Ventris Lane to enter the parking lot. Take out and catering is available. Call 407-960-5533 for more information.
The winning appetizer is the Gamberoni Siciliana – a beautiful sampling of fresh shrimp in a perfect cream sauce of olive oil, garlic, capers, cherry tomatoes and cognac. This appetizer does double-duty when you use this wish-it-had-gone-on-forever sauce for dipping. As an eggplant lover, I tried the Melanzane Parmigiana and was more than delighted with the sliced eggplant baked to perfection with mozzarella, tomato and basil (and no breading). Glory hallelujah.
The pastas are fun here, not only because they are made fresh, by hand and in-house (and yes, freshness does make a difference even in boiled pasta) but because we are invited to choose our own pasta and our own sauce (of which there are six to choose from). We chose a heavenly blend of linguine with little neck clams. And experienced Chef Francesco’s true artistry shows, as the linguine was perfectly al dente but also infused throughout with the taste of the clams.
Because Chef Francesco is known for fish, we tried the Salmon Bruschetta, which, as its name implies, covers a lovely piece of salmon with the classic appetizer ingredients of tomatoes, basil, garlic, onions and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. Both delicious and light, the portion was fortunately large enough to share, and as our lovely server Jennifer reminded us, “Sharing is caring.”
A huge batch of pizza dough was being prepared while we were there, and the restaurant does an enviable business of take-out pizzas, all of which are baked in front of you in a wood-burning oven.
Knowing ahead of time that Francesco’s is very much a family restaurant, we saved room – in an Italian restaurant – for dessert! Francesco has imported his father and mother to create all of the desserts by hand, and the menu proudly states that the pastries, “are freshly and exquisitely baked in house.” And they are, fresh and exquisite. The Cassata al Forno is a magnificent creation of cake stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips and decorated with cinnamon. The Cannoli, with its lovingly made-by-hand pastry shells, is stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips, and the gelato (ice cream) is so fresh that it is served as a flavor of the day. Each bite of dessert is to be treasured for all the love that has been brought here to our little slice of paradise from the Old Country.
So, dear readers, it is no surprise to you that this restaurant comes highly recommended. Watch the Observer for announcements of a series of wine-pairing dinners being planned for the fall. I will certainly be there for that series of wonderfulness.
And if you’ve read this far, tell your server “Josh sent me,” and you’ll be offered one free glass of house wine with each entrée.