Lightless letdown: Service at Francesca’s doesn’t hold candle to appetizing Italian menu
When I think about Italian food, I think of a big, happy family dinner. So this weekend, when I was craving a nice sit-down meal, I gathered up my family of friends and drove down to Francesca’s Cucina in Syracuse’s Little Italy.
We made a night of it and got dressed up, only to sit in the darkest corner behind the bar. Now, there’s darkness to create ambiance and then there’s “what-am-I-eating?” dark. Francesca’s was the latter.
It might seem like I’m harping too heavily on the lack of light, but this issue carried into other aspects of our dining experience, ultimately taking away from some of the bold Italian flavors we sampled.
For example, pitting seven hungry girls against a well-sized menu, plus a long, sloppily hand-written list of specials with only two candles to go around is dangerous.
This was slightly redeemed by the fact that Francesca’s had a lot of enticing options. The menu highlighted ingredients that Italian cooking masters: fresh vegetables and cured meats — veal, chicken and fresh fish. There were refreshing combinations like the special of Halibut over Jasmine Rice with Creamed Spinach (priced as a special), the Cedar Planked Bacon-Wrapped Sea Scallops ($22), as well as a twist on Italian classics with the Risotto Manicotti special ($15) and the Chicken Marsala ($17).
Each meal came with a house salad and choice of dressing. We all wisely chose the balsamic vinaigrette, which was creamy and well balanced, and tart but not bitter. With a kick of black pepper and a possible hint of pine nut, it was almost perfect, except that I ate all of mine in one bite. The dressing was not mixed well among the fresh greens — something I probably would have noticed with a little more light.
As we waited for our entrees to arrive, a few of us decided to order some wine, but our waiter was nowhere to be found. Or maybe he didn’t notice us from our tight, tiny table. Tired of waiting, a few of us stepped out from our shadowy spot and up to the bar where, in the better lighting, our waiter noticed us and said he could take our orders. Too late, my friend.
He seemed to get the message, and soon, our main courses were set before us. With six different meals to choose from, I tasted the good, the great and the boring.
The good was that the amount of jumbo sea scallops on my plate was beyond generous, and the first few I sampled were perfectly cooked having been pan seared and then smoked on a cedar plank with Dijon mustard. But good just wasn’t good enough, as the mashed potatoes were lacking any type of flavoring, and the last two scallops on my plate were relatively overcooked and rubbery.
The Crab Stuffed Salmon with garlic risotto ($22) was simply great because it was simple. With a good cut of fresh fish, as was in this dish, the best way to prepare it is by bringing out its natural flavors. The salmon had notes of lemon and herbs, and roasted perfectly through to the savory crab salad mix in the middle. The garlic risotto was oozing with creamy cheese and buttery garlic paired perfectly with the fish.
The boring manicotti risotto was the most disappointing because it had so much potential. Who would think to put two of Italy’s most decadent dishes together? The possibilities of rich flavor combinations could have been truly innovative. But at the end of the day, this dish stumbled into the pitfall that many Italian meals fall into: It was drowned in tomato sauce.
Some of my friends who had gone to Francesca’s before said they’ve had better experiences and, considering some of the delicious food we had, maybe it’s just luck of the draw.
But a great restaurant should be consistent and make accommodating the customer its first priority. The kitchen over at Francesca’s understands how to create interesting but authentic Italian cooking. Their difficulty in execution can be easily fixed. It’s the inattentive service and dark atmosphere out front that will make or break your experience there.
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