In 'n' Out Italian
Franco Zeppi Attempts to Make Takeout Fancy
I'd been looking forward to the opening of Canton's FrancoZeppi Ristorante Italiano for some time. It was touted as home-cooked Italian at bargain prices, and that's exactly what we found. And just like Mama's home cooking, FrancoZeppi's has its high and low points, but you'll likely leave feeling that friendly folks have done their best to make you feel well fed and cared for. Best of all, you can come as you are, even if "as you are" means, as it does the night C.C. and I visited, paint-spattered togs.
The deal here is self-serve, sort of. The pretty L-shaped dining room consists of handsome booths and cherry-wood tables. You can take a seat and study the printed bill of fare or go up front and peruse the menu board while waiting in line to order. Tell them what you want, pay, get your drinks, take your numbered ticket, and go sit down. You might get called when your order is up, but if things aren't too busy a busboy will bring it to you.
We decided to sample a collection of appetizers by ordering the fritto misto ($5.95). It was, of course, all fritto--fried calamari, mozzarella sticks, zucchini--and so plentiful it could be a meal in itself, especially if accompanied by a $3.95 glass of one of the house wines. (We sampled good chianti and merlot.) The fritto misto was pretty greasy, though. Batter obscured the few slices of zucchini, the squid was a bit too chewy, and the mozzarella sticks were standard-issue. The thin marinara sauce did have a little kick of spice to it, which improved matters somewhat.
We decided against ordering one of the hand-tossed pizzas (New York- and Sicilian-style pizzas are offered) but did request a slice of vegetable pizza ($2.25). This turned out to be a white pie, hand-tossed, topped with spinach, ricotta cheese, fresh mushrooms, and flavorful Roma tomatoes, an outstanding blend of tastes. Our busboy, observing our appreciation of the slice, confided that the white pizza is his fave.
For my entrée, I opted for the homemade lasagna ($7.95), an enormous portion served in its own baking dish. It made up in size for what it lacked in subtlety, and there was plenty for the next day's lunch. C.C. found the cheese a bit on the sour side, but I just thought the whole thing had been baked too long (the noodles in particular had suffered). I enjoyed the big slab of garlic bread laid across the top of the dish, though the kitchen needs to develop a heavier hand with the fragrant bulb.
C.C. didn't see anything on the menu that she wanted, because what she wanted was pesto. She loves the pungent green sauce on anything and has been known to spoon it up straight. She asked the woman taking orders if pesto was a possibility, and the answer was yes. The resulting order was linguini with shrimp and the green stuff ($11.95). The resulting dish was consisted of seven large, well-cooked shrimp over properly al dente pasta, all in a sort of pesto cream sauce, a lighter and milder version of the real thing. It was pretty good but, curiously, the flavor of the sauce improved with a day's aging in the fridge.
FrancoZeppi's menu caters to a wide range of tastes without departing from the Italian theme. There are chicken and veal dishes, lots of shellfish dishes, a few salads, calzones, pizzas, and subs. Kids get their own menu, but if yours don't like spaghetti or ravioli, get them a slice of pizza. Either way, it won't set you back much. In fact, most dishes run in the $7-$12 range, prices that let you afford a second glass of wine for lingering.
As long as you're lingering, don't do so without dessert. FrancoZeppi offers a few of the classic Italian sweets, but direct your attention to the tiny treats displayed by the cash register, most priced under a buck. Load up on lemon bars (40 cents each), luscious with a fresh, tart flavor. Try the turtle bars (45 cents apiece), made with caramel and chocolate and closer to candy than cookie. But our hearts were stolen by Grandma Dora's cookie (80 cents)--anise-flavored shortbread, crunchy without, moist within; a complete charmer. When we asked who made the treats, we were told, mysteriously, "someone connected to the restaurant." That's one connection FrancoZeppi should keep, because these treats lured us away from a cannoli stuffed with Vaccaro's sweet ricotta filling, and that's a first. In fact, we left with a box of bars and cookies in hand, and a reversal of our earlier suspicion that we'd hate the self-service thing at Franco's . Folks in line were friendly, and folks on staff were friendly. Best of all, most folks looked as grubby as us.
Open 11 A.M.-9 P.M. Sunday to Thursday, 11 A.M.-11 P.M. Friday and Saturday.