In a setting that’s curiously both humble and haute, Chef Aiello proves that a quality neighborhood pizzeria can also be a delightful destination restaurant.
Francesco’s Ristorante Pizzeria is a hybrid: It’s both upscale and downscale. It’s both a delightful date-night destination and a better-than-average neighborhood pizzeria in a strip mall.
For me it’s a handy go-to where I can grab a good and reasonably priced chicken parmigiana dinner with a fresh house salad. I’d think nothing of bringing the kids along for an Italiana (simple cheese) pie.
Others, however, view their visits to Francesco’s less casually. On Saturday nights, for example, the booths are packed with well-dressed couples enjoying a big night out.
Whatever. Any way you slice it, so to speak, Francesco’s offers warm service, housemade dishes and moderate prices. Try it and you’re likely to become a regular.
First, the setting: The restaurant is tucked into a newish office and retail complex hugging Orlando Avenue in Maitland, a tad north of Winter Park. A large, open kitchen dominates the dining room. You’ll see chefs tossing pizza dough, sautéing sauces and dressing greens.
Yet, while Formica tables and cheap travel posters are de rigueur decor for most mom-and-pop pizza joints, here you’ll find frescoed walls, light-colored bricks with faux patches of plaster and arches reminiscent of Italy. The dining room is lit by playful, bubbly chandeliers.
The ambience might best be described as “1995 Long Island.” Sure, it’s kind of schmaltzy. But this place gets credit for making an effort to transcend its humble genre.
In addition to traditional booths and tables, there’s a private dining room, bar stools at a counter facing the kitchen and a few outside seats in an enclosed patio overlooking the parking lot.
“I wanted to make a restaurant that’s classy, but not expensive,” says Francesco Aiello, the chef and co-owner. “The kitchen is open so people can see exactly how hard the crew works.”
Whether Aiello is around during your visit or not, the operation reflects his welcoming personality. He knows the regulars by name and sets a people-pleasing example shared by his staff.
Reservations are honored and taken. Servers and managers check on tables regularly. Even staff cooks smile and nod hello between deft dough tosses.
Aiello is from Palermo, Sicily, and the menu reflects his culinary heritage. “The dishes are from the southern parts of Italy,” he says. “I tried to bring really authentic Italian cuisine over here. Nothing is premade.”
In the morning, Aiello precooks the pasta, makes the basic marinara sauce and prepares the doughs for the pizza and the bread. “Where I grew up, there was no microwave oven,” he adds. “Food was all about quality and freshness. So that’s what we do here.”
Francesco’s offers the usual Italian-American classics — but some dishes surprise with Sicilian twists.
The eggplant parmigiana appetizer was ultimately our favorite among the starters. A large square of lightly fried fresh eggplant was baked with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses plus the housemade marinara sauce. The texture was tender, the flavor bright.
We followed up with a plateful of spaghetti alla carbonara. Aiello makes this Roman specialty with sautéed pancetta and scallions, eggs and black pepper. We found it good but unexciting, and would have preferred another round (or 10) of shakes from the pepper grinder. It would have been much better with a little more kick.
Many of Aiello’s guests are accustomed to cream-based carbonara sauce. So, upon request, he adds “a touch” of cream to his own recipe. However, he expects to convert his clientele to the cream-free variety over time. “Sooner or later they will go my way,” he says confidently.
Hopefully he won’t feel the need to tinker with the well-favored and generously portioned chicken parmigiana, which I love just the way it is. And the veal Siciliano, which I tried on a more recent visit, was almost as good. Tender medallions were sautéed with three Sicilian staples: capers, artichokes and grape tomatoes. A white wine sauce brought the flavors together.
Chicken cacciatore is different in every restaurant. Aiello includes green olives, which adds what he describes as “a little sweet and a little bitter,” along with pomodoro, mushrooms and onions. I love green olives, but found their flavor too pervasive. My dining companion, who also ordrered the entree, just plain dislikes green olives, tried the dish anyway with a predictable reaction.
I drank a nice Primitivo with this meal. It’s from Italy, as are all the restaurant’s wines. “My philosophy is if you’re running an Italian restaurant, the food should be from Italy, and that includes the wine,” Aiello says. Discussion closed.
That same Primitivo would have been just as swell with the Italiana pizza, which we ordered to go. Like all of Francesco’s pizzas, this one was baked at 700 degrees in a wood-burning oven until it’s quite dark.
Ours, topped with a slow-melting imported mozzarella cheese called Bacio along with Romano cheese, plum tomatoes, garlic and basil, was just right, with the basil infusing a lively spirit to a nicely charred pie.
Sitting at the food bar, we watched the staff prepare an array of beautiful pizzas, some piled generously with spinach, artichoke, pepperoni and more. I’d return just to have a one of those.
Aiello, who attended Italy’s Intituto Alberghiero culinary school, was raised around good cooking. His father was a pastry chef and his parents, who now live in Central Florida, make all the restaurant’s desserts from scratch. That includes the cannoli, with its crispy, tubular exterior, as well as an Italian wedding cake with a similarly rich impastata ricotta cheese. It’s ugly, that cake – layers of white and yellow slathered with colored whipped cream. But it’s good.
Some Francesco’s regulars have surely eaten Aiello’s food before. After moving to Orlando in 1998, he spent nine years at The Sicilian Restaurant & Pizza, his uncle’s place on Lee Road, then another six years at Terramia in Altamonte Springs and Lake Mary.
Francesco’s is, thankfully, never painfully loud. But it does bustle, even on weekdays. Nonetheless, Aiello is thinking of opening a second restaurant. “I dream of having a place where all the food is in season,” he says.
If he does, we’ll be there.
400 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland, 407-960-5533, francescos-rist.com. Entrees $10.95 to $17.95
MORE ITALIAN OPTIONS
FOR WINTER PARKERS
Prato. Italian fare takes a progressive turn at this happening hangout on Park Avenue, where scratch-made pastas and pizzas are matched by scratch-made liqueurs and more. prato-wp.com
Rocco’s Italian Grille. Top-quality fare and a serene, even romantic, ambience makes Rocco’s a perennial choice for date nights. In nice weather, dine under the stars on the secluded patio. roccositaliangrille.com
Armando’s Cucina Italiana & Pizzeria. Indoor-outdoor seating and loads of white give Armando’s a Hamptons feel in Hannibal Square. The menu is vast and the pizzas are build-your-own.
Tolla’s. Tucked away on Pennsylvania Avenue, Tolla’s is an insider’s find, a lovely independent restaurant boasting a straightforward red-sauce menu. tollasdeli.com
Pannullo’s Italian Restaurant. Boasting a primo location in the heart of the Park Avenue shopping district, Pannullo’s has been putting out Italian classics at reasonable prices since 1992. pannullos.com
Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria. This old-fashioned eatery, where garlic knots are a must, is a neighborhood go-to for residents of Winter Park’s east side. giovannisrestaurant.com