Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Francesca's Cucina

Name: Francesca's Cucina
Address: 545 N Salina St, Syracuse, NY
Phone: (315) 425-1556
Neighborhood: Washington Square (Little Italy)
Website: www.francescas-cucina.com
Menu: View Menu
Cuisine: Italian
Restaurant Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM, Monday-Saturday 5 PM to 10 PM
Bar Hours: Monday-Friday 11 AM to Close, Saturday 5 PM to Close
Catering Hours: Monday-Sunday by reservation
Parking: Private Lot (free: next door/around corner), On-Street
Accepts Credit Cards: Yes
Takes Reservations: Yes
Take-Out: Yes
Delivery: No

On a recent cold and wintery evening, my rosy cheeks and empty stomach found itself at Francesca's Cucina on North Salina Street in Little Italy.

A fairly busy and rowdy crowd was on hand passing through the bar area. Upon scoping out their website soon after, I found out it was Francesca's 7th Annual Customer Appreciation Holiday Party. Unbeknownst to me, the arrival time of my date and I was roughly 15 minutes prior to when they usually begin seating for dinner, but the waiter was kind enough to seat us in the dining room ahead of time anyway, away from the crowd and without a reservation.

The dining area is contemporary, very relaxed, and intimate with exposed brick walls, framed pictures, white tablecloths, dim candle lighting, and very tall windows facing Salina Street all underneath traditional tin ceiling panels. The lighting may have been a bit too dim for my taste, as it eventually became a little difficult to read the menu. Glass stemware, white plates, and heavy silverware were all cohesive, tasteful, and classy and really let you know that you were in a place that cared about its setting.

While I didn't get a look before seating, there's also an outdoor garden patio area for dining and catering during the warmer months. Judging by the pictures online, it looks like a great spot for outdoor dining.

The menu is very descriptive and has Italian classics like linguine with clam sauce, fettuccine alfredo, veal parmesan, and others, local favorites like Utica greens, riggies, haddock franchise, and some very enticing dishes like panko-coconut crusted salmon, crab stuffed chicken breast, and apple gorgonzola salad. Overall, it's a predominantly seafood and meat driven menu, but there's a few vegetarian options like salads, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, cheese ravioli, homemade gnocchi, and vegetable rigatoni.

The wine menu contains a well-rounded selection with choices from Germany, Italy, Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes.

The order...

Merlot, Blackstone (California): $7
Calamari: $10
Stuffed Hot Cherry Peppers: $7
Lobster Ravioli: $18
w/ Soup of the Day (Italian Onion)
Total money spent with tax & tip: $53.36

Arriving to the table prior to ordering was a loaf of Italian bread with the waitress pouring a tall bottle of olive oil onto a plate mixed with basil and other dried herbs. Fresh table bread and a perfect olive oil for dipping.

Pictured above is the fried calamari: lightly battered and gently sprinkled with chopped parsley, homemade marinara sauce on the side, and garnished with a lemon wedge and flower. These were perfectly fried and tender calamari tentacles and rings that didn't at all taste like rubber bands (which can be a risk when ordering them so far away from the coastline). And not only was the calamari fresh, but whatever the batter was, it was delicately crunchy and melt-in-your-mouth good. I would absolutely order these again.

While I probably tend to mention my love for Boston's seafood more often than I should on this blog, let the record show that this was a close second to best fried calamari that I've ever had (the best being from a random vendor at St Anthony's Feast in the North End), which from a personal standpoint, says a lot about how good this was at Francesca's. It was awesome.

Next up was the stuffed hot cherry peppers: beef filling and baked with marinara sauce and finished with Romano cheese. Pictured above on a separate plate.

The spicy red and green cherry peppers were packed with a juicy beef filling (almost like mini-meatballs) and accompanied with a fresh and spicy marinara sauce. Excellent appetizer.

A cold evening called for soup instead of salad, which I rarely do. It ended up being a nice decision. The broth of the Italian Onion soup had an excellent consistency and was not too thick; almost like a cross between a beef broth from a French Onion soup and a thin tomato soup; and spoonfuls of long, sauteed onions were the perfect addition. Also some good crusty bread that soaked up the soup. I'm not a big soup guy in general, but this was very tasty.

There it is. Behold. The lobster ravioli. This was outstanding: robust, diced tomatoes in a creamy, pink vodka sauce with hints of fresh garlic, chopped scallions, basil, shredded parmesan, and perfectly cooked diced onions all set atop beautiful, striped ravioli that was generously packed with chunks of tender Maine lobster. I'd be hard-pressed to order anything different on my next visit as it was one of the best and most flavorful pasta dishes that I've had in recent memory. A-plus all around.

Writer's note: it should be noted that my Mohawk Valley-born girlfriend was a little put-off upon reading that Francesca's Chicken Riggies were listed as "a Syracuse tradition!" on the menu. She had to order them to see if they incorrectly lived up to the claim. They passed.

There was no room for desert, but I'll definitely give it a shot on my next visit.

Considering this visit was intended as an intimate dinner for two, it was a perfect choice. Great setting (despite the loud crowd on this occasion), great food, and you're really treated like a welcomed customer from the thoughtful service and thoughtful execution in the food, which you can tell just by reading the menu that each dish has been thought-out for and carefully cared for.

This was really a great meal. And from a personal standpoint, it was nice to eat at an Italian restaurant where you didn't receive that familiar, blase, home-style cooking experience that you can find anywhere in Central New York (i.e. uninspiring bread, salads, and appetizers and dishes drenched in sauce and filled to the brim with ungodly large portion sizes). Franesca's was a pleasant breakaway from the local-norm and had the feel of offering more refined food where the focus is on the layers of flavors happening in each of the pastas and sauces.

If I can get a little more existential (here I go!), I guess I'll never understand why people will choose to wait for over an hour and dine at Texas Roadhouse or Ruby Tuesdays as oppose to a meal at a place like Francesca's. It was a great dining experience, parking was easy, there was minimal wait on a Thursday night, and the food was not only superb but appropriately priced too. I mean, I don't want to bash the big chains or the people that dine there because I enjoy those places every so often as well, but I don't rely on them as a staple or as my go-to place for a certain cuisine. A slight purpose of this blog is to show that there are other dining options in Syracuse that offer a far better experience than the standard chains. Francescan's is the perfect example of how one meal here can be more memorable than 20 visits to an Olive Garden.

This was by far one of the best Italian meals that I've had over the last several years and I can't wait to return.

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