Cooking with love is probably one of the greatest things on earth. Cooking Italian food with love is even better. I dined at Da Franco this past week with my mom (aww) in our hometown of Astoria, Queens, and we were feeling the family love.
Tucked away in the heart of Astoria near the park is Da Franco, just 7 months young and full of promise. Owner Franco Spatola and his wife, Esther, were very gracious hosts. I told Franco that I had heard a lot about their homemade mozzarella and their Pizza alla Modena, so I had to try it. He told us he would go back into the kitchen and start working on it while we ordered some wine and browsed the menu…
Ahhh this menu! Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind…overwhelming is another. It's a huge menu. This menu is to Italian food what words are to dictionaries. Upon further review, I noticed that it's a lot of the same ingredients, just used differently in a multitude of combinations. I think the menu doesn't need to be that extensive, especially when the food is good and simple, but I guess there's nothing wrong with variety, which seemed to be the theme of our meal anyway. We did a tasting of quite a few dishes, and it was hard to pinpoint a favorite, but that Pizza alla Modena won my heart, quite literally…see below.
Pizza all Modena = perfection
How can something so simple be so delicious? When it's made with fresh, homemade ingredients and a little love. This pizza is made in a special Marsal brick oven that cooks evenly from all sides, producing a wonderfully crispy crust, then topped with cherry tomatoes, homemade mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto and shaved parmesan cheese. It was so good, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a pizza that much - everything was perfect. The cheese did that beautiful stringy thing that only fresh mozzarella does, and even though I looked like a slob eating it, I really didn't care. As cheese was dangling from my mouth, Franco came over and suggested a little drizzle of Sicilian olive oil on top. I didn't think it needed it, but it really heightened the flavors and brought everything together. And, he made it in the shape of a heart for me and my mom…who will also probably be my Valentine's date this year. Awesome.
As my mom and I ripped through the Pizza alla Modena, we were presented with more appetizers: Polenta e Gorgonzola, Portobello Milanese al Forno, Antipasto Italia, and the Insalata di Rucola con Noci. All of those, roughly translated, mean "scrumptious". The gorgonzola polenta was my mom's favorite, with its incredibly smooth texture and silky gorgonzola sauce. I liked the oven-roasted portobello mushrooms topped with more of that homemade mozzarella (can't have enough of that), served on a bed of spinach with cherry tomatoes and white balsamic vinegar - they were so earthy and flavorful. We also really enjoyed both the antipasto and the rucola con noci (arugula and walnut) salads. The antipasto is inherently Italian (imported cheese, peppers, olives, salumi) while the other is lighter Italian fare and not-so-traditional with arugula, walnuts and fennel, tossed with apple and fresh mint cider and big shavings of parmigiano reggiano. Being that they are so different, it was hard to pick a favorite. I'd have to say that if I was in the mood for savory, I'd go with the antipasto, but if I wanted something light and refreshing, the walnuts and fennel salad would be perfect. It was citrusy, sweet and crisp, while the antipasto was fragrant and intense.
When Franco told me that all of their pastas (except for the rigatoni and ziti) are homemade, I felt I would be doing myself a disservice by NOT trying one…or two. Again, there were so many to choose from, I had to go with my gut (and a little help from the waitress): Orecchiette alla Barese, orecchiette pasta with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, broccoli rabe and grilled pork sausage; and the Rigatoni all'Matriciana, rigatoni with pancetta, onions, and pecorino romano in a light tomato sauce. Here is the bottom line for pasta: fresh is always better. The rigatoni was a bit undercooked, and therefore didn't soak up the sauce the way it normally would, which was a shame. My orecchiette, however, was very good; savory sausage, sweet garlic and the mildly bitter broccoli rabe on top of fresh pasta was excellent. Another drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and I was in carbo-heaven.
At this point, I had so much savory that I needed something sweet. I also needed something caffeinated. Da Franco was hosting a rather large party that night, so the service was a little slow, but understandably so; the group was over 40 people and they had to crank out pizzas and pastas by the dozen! So we were patient. Esther and Franco suggested a homemade ricotta cheesecake they had made that morning, and I NEEDED something chocolate (as I usually do), so I got the tiramisu as well. I am incredibly biased towards my mom's cheesecake, so I rarely order it out, but this one was pretty good. It had a much better texture than I expected (I find ricotta cheesecake to be too mealy sometimes), and it had some nice lemon zest in it, which my mom also puts in her cheesecake, so they won points for that. I thought the tiramisu was better, but that could be my somewhat unhealthy addiction to chocolate kicking in. It was a beautiful presentation in a glass, goblet-like dish, and the layers were all perfect; the lady fingers were soft but not soggy, the mascarpone cream was not too sweet, and the dusting of chocolate on top was just right. I felt like Goldilocks - the fat version.
Just a few sips of my espresso rounded out an overall great meal. I really didn't expect to like it as much as I did; I even told Franco I was pleasantly surprised. I don't venture out to Astoria much for the fine dining, but I really should. They have so many good restaurants, and Da Franco I now know is one of them. For Manhattanites, it's a bit of a walk from the train, but in the warm weather I think it's totally worth it, not to mention they have tables set up outside then. And if you live in the boroughs with a car, then you have no excuse - parking is pretty easy around there too. The prices aren't bad either, and for the quality of the food, I say make the trip and put a little love in your stomach. And PS for all of you pizza lovers: the Pizza alla Modena tastes great cold too. How do I know this?? I wouldn't let them take it away for the entire meal.