Francesca’s Forno – Chicago
The Francesca’s group of Chicago-area restaurants has grown over 15 years to boast 16 different locations, each with its own unique, neighborhood-driven vibe. But infused in each restaurant is founder Scott Harris’ philosophy: “simple, rustic cooking and flavors, great service and good prices.” A recipe for success? You bet.
Tuesday night dining for me, at least, means anything but dining out. But Francesca’s Forno has made a point to change that, by offering a three-course meal for $23. Not your usual limited prix fixe menu, mind you – choose any starter, entree and dessert from their regular or specials menu. (Now, this kind of customer-focused special is rare. As we all know, “specials” often come with restrictions, which to me, doesn’t make sense. If you want to give people a deal, give it to them. Don’t make them feel awkward, guilty, or cheated by giving them a limited selection. By doing so, you defeat the purpose of offering a special in the first place: you want them to come back. And bring five or six friends. But I digress…)
Located in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Francesca’s Forno is a contemporary twist on the Italian trattoria, with sleek, clean lines, huge windows that frame the bustling streets outside, hints of rusticity from wood surfaces and traditional artwork, and a warm, natural color palette. Neither fussy nor boring, the interior allows the diner to focus on what is important: the food and drink.
After a couple of well-made martinis (lemon oil droplets from the twist breaking the surface of the ice cold vodka) I began my delightful evening with the Insalata con Uova. Having seen this preparation many times, I was eager to try it.
Comprised of baby field greens, perfectly grilled asparagus (not too charred), and Parmesan, the salad is then topped with a fried egg and a drizzle of white truffle oil. The temperature of the ingredients was perfect; the greens not too cold, the egg not piping hot, but somewhere between just-cooked and still-runny-but smooth. The combination was heaven – the crisp greens and asparagus against the soft, smooth egg, lightened by a lemony vinaigrette, grounded by the truffle oil. I was so enraptured by the dish I forgot to take a picture before finishing it off. Luckily my good friend David, sitting across from me, ordered the same thing (and eats slower than I do)!
For my entree, I ordered the Maiale alla Griglia, a pork “porterhouse”, topped with a grilled peach, surrounded by a balsamic glace, and served with sauteed rapini.
The pork was very flavorful, but slightly overcooked and therefore a little tough. That didn’t stop me from gnawing on the bone, though! The peach added sweetness, but almost too much, almost like it was canned. The balsamic glace was hearty and delicious, and the rapini was the perfect accompaniment to the sweet/savory mix, adding a slight bitterness and an organic, stalky texture to the plate.
To compliment the meal, our wonderful server Julianna recommended a Livio Felluga Sauvignon. It was perfect. Dry and crisp, it had terrific lingering herbal and dry fruit notes that worked well with everyone’s dishes, from my pork dish to those eating pasta (Linguini alla Arlecchino – shrimp, scallops, cherry tomatoes, chili flakes), and chicken (Pollo Arrosto – roasted half chicken, potatoes, grilled banana pepper, garlic and rosemary).
Dessert was a study in decadence. There were four of us, so we ordered four different desserts and instituted the “rotate to the left” rule. I think some got greedy because a couple never got around to me!
I ordered the Budino di pane al Cioccolato e Banana, or Banana Bread Pudding. I didn’t expect to like it, as I am a bread pudding purist (no raisins, please!). But the richness of the chocolate and the bright sweetness of the banana worked really well. Of course, the slab of ice cream on top didn’t hurt, either!
The dessert special was a lemon pound cake with berry topping (yes, the real name was much more romantic and enticing, but I can’t remember what it was) that was fabulous. I’m sure Kevin regrets sitting to my right (oh Kevin, look over there!) as I ate more than my share of his dessert.
On this particular Tuesday, the place was packed. Francesca’s has what it takes to provide delicious, well-prepared food at affordable prices. Let’s hear it for simple and rustic!