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Review Sun Aug 31 2008
Some restaurants are like Sybil: some people love them, others aren't fans and it's confusing to try and figure them out. A recent client lunch in Wicker Park gave me the chance to try and get to the bottom of the love/hate relationship many of my friends have with the hipster hood's Italian eatery, Francesca's Forno.
For a chain restaurant to locate in the middle of indie-oriented Wicker Park is a brave move. (There are 14 other "Francesca's Family" restaurants across Chicagoland, mostly in the suburbs). The most worrisome advance comment I had heard about the place came from a local who told me, "I'm never impressed, but my husband loves the place. I asked him why once. He said because he was full." But Yelpers seem to like the food, so I knew there had to be a middle ground somewhere. Perhaps the place was just a contradiction in terms?
My clients were 45 minutes late, so there was much time to peruse the sizable lunch menu. It seemed am ambitious list of selections for a Noontime meal, with no fewer than 43 items to choose from among cold and warm anitipasti, pastas, pizzas, grilled paninne, and cheese-and-meat pairings. For a moment, I flashed on the opening of every episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.
But I reserved doubt and when my companions arrived, we ordered a cross-section of the menu. Clients or not, they already knew eating with me, I'd be sampling their plates.
Happily, no nightmares arrived on our table. In fact, nothing really out of the ordinary arrived on our table. I felt my Buddhist leanings fully over lunch as my mind kept repeating the same phrase with every bite, "Middle Ground. Middle Ground."
We shared four appetizers to start. All of us were impressed by the artful plating as they arrived, one by one, from the kitchen. If only that visual love had extended to the ingredients. A caprese salad suffered from rubbery mozzarella and oddly huge and tasteless tomato slices. Ricotta and honey tasted as if it had been made with catering-supply cheese.
Fried calamari was closer to expectations. Lemon aioli sauce was tasty, but some of squid were limp from soggy breading. We agreed the pear carpaccio was the real starter star, thinly sliced fruit dusted with parmesan shavings and drizzled with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar, all of which seemed to be quality ingredients.
Maybe I was going about it all wrong. Instead of metaphorizing, ought I to have been looking for an unofficial motto for the place? My money's on "Money can't buy me love." At least not consistently from this kitchen.
I continued to look for evidence of otherwise as our entrees were brought to the table. Though each one arrived as prettily plated as the last, taste continued to be a hit-and-miss affair.
Pane Frattau pizza (pictured) paired melt-in-your mouth prosciutto, pecorino romano cheese, tomato, and a fried egg (my favorite European topping for anything savory) with a pre-manufactured, thick and gummy dough. Grilled salmon arrived with impressive grill marks and an unimpressive well-done texture all the way through to the center of the salmon steak.
Risotto (pictured) simply wasn't. My companion who ordered it likened the watery concoction to "rice soup", so far was it from the properly thickened dish it should have been. Cheese ravioli was the best of the entrees. Not because it was exceptional, but because it was as expected: an ordinary plate of ricotta-filled pasta in an inoffensive tomato-basil sauce (although, surprisingly, no whole wheat pasta option was available.)
Service was similarly uneven. Friendly wait staff were knowledgeable about menu items and the day's specials. But finished plates were left to crowd the table from mid-meal until the arrival of our check. While we were waiting, we opted to share dessert (pictured). A banana bread pudding (foreground) was dry and uninspiring, even under a crown of vanilla ice cream. Lives were almost lost, however, clamoring for the richly molten chocolate cake drizzled with chocolate syrup. If only the entire meal had been as felony-worthy as this cake.
Lunch over, I was no closer to figuring out Francesca's Forno than when I started but an inch away from a headache from the effort of trying. (And from a more apt potential motto that wouldn't stop rolling through my head, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") I turned to my clients and begged for their impressions.
"It was okay." "I liked it." "At least it was tasty."
"I'm full, that must count for something."
Could it be that Francesca's Forno is an enigma wrapped in a...oh, I give up. Right back where I started, I knew, just like the food, that I'd have nothing out of the ordinary to say about the place. I'd go back by dint of another group decision, but nothing that was on our collective plates makes me eager to return to this joint on my own.
It's no fun when you find yourself pulling for your food, especially given the number of eateries in this town where love from the kitchen is far more apparent on your plate. Don't get me wrong, adequacy has its place. But in better places it's far more fun to fill up.
1576 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 773-770-0184