By Liesel Schmidt
Though lots of restaurants claim to be “Italian,” it takes a mere cursory glance over the menu to realize that what they’re serving is about as authentically Italian as a microwavable lasagna. And while they may play up the theme with the clichéd décor of candles in Chianti bottles topping the tables of a dimly lit dining room while a canned loop of dulcet music sung in the native tongue is piped over the sound system, the watered-down dishes they offer often bear only a poor resemblance to the cuisine of the country they claim to represent.
Taking any question of their authenticity out of the game, Franco’s Italian Restaurant has been serving truly Italian food for nearly a quarter of a century, their flavors slow simmered in tradition to achieve fare worthy of a place of honor on the table, a true taste of la famiglia in every bite that offers a warm welcome and an invitation to sit and enjoy la dolce vita.
Originally opened in 1993, the fare at Franco’s brought a new accent to the shores of Orange Beach, Alabama, readily standing out from the regional cuisine that locals had become so accustomed to sampling. When Clorinda Bassolino-Meadlock purchased the restaurant from its original owners in the summer of 2015, she wasn’t simply taking up the reigns of someone else’s idea. She was taking a leap of faith based on heart, heritage, and a desire to share the food that had always fed her soul, her true formula for success found in the recipes that have flowed through the bloodlines of her family from one generation to the next.
Such robustness is the backbone of Italian cooking, a balanced meeting of rusticity and refinement that demands no snobbery but rather embraces feasting as an art and a way to connect. The table is a gathering place, the seated summit of hearts and minds that all seem to find equanimity in a plate of food. There’s passion poured into every dish; and at Franco’s, that passion is truly what drives the menu, from the scratch-made sauces and freshly rolled pasta to the last lingering bite of handcrafted tiramisu.
These are the familiar tastes and smells of Bassolino-Meadlock’s childhood, recipes she learned from her father, a native of Napoli whose parents’ desire for the American dream brought his family to the harbor at Ellis Island when he was a 13 year-old boy and from her “Nonna,” whose homemade pastas were ever draped across broomsticks in her garage as they rested and dried. For Bassolino-Meadlock, this is the very fabric of her family; and when guests dine at Franco’s, they’re experiencing tradition. “The concept here is ‘La Famiglia,’ and that’s absolutely what we are—a family-owned, truly authentic Italian restaurant,” says Bassolino-Meadlock, her thick New York accent coating every word. “For me, this is something that’s in my blood—my Nonna was a wonderful cook; and when my father Rocco came to America, he stood on Pepsi crates to learn how to make pizzas. After he grew up and married my mother, they owned their own restaurants in New York, and that’s really where I was raised—in the family restaurants, learning those recipes,” she explains. “After I became the mother of my own three beautiful daughters, having that kind of legacy to give my girls was important to me.”
Offering classics like Lasagna, Cheese Manicotti, and Eggplant Parmigiana, the menu at Franco’s provides those familiar favorites that anyone might expect to see at an Italian eatery. But the superiority of the flavors created here is what sets it apart, flavors that give a strongly worded hand gesture to expediency and pay respect to the method of time. These are the very essence of great Italian cooking, using the freshest ingredients combined with care and understanding of how to achieve depth and an oddly simple complexity that translates into remarkable robustness on the tongue. “Everything that can be made from scratch is made from scratch, right down to pureeing fresh tomatoes for our sauces,” Bassolino-Meadlock says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Alongside more well known dishes like their Veal Picatta and New York style pizzas made with freshly-tossed dough, the chefs at Franco’s offer a new lesson in the language of love with the Seafood Lasagna, blending a flavorful mixture of cheeses with plump Gulf shrimp, tender scallops, and succulent crabmeat layered together with fresh spinach, scratch made lasagna noodles, and their signature creamy Alfredo sauce to disprove the theory that seafood and cheese possess flavors that feud.
For both their most traditional Old World offerings as well as their reimagined classics, Franco’s is an authentic taste of Italy that showcases an inherent love and appreciation for food. There is a certain respect and reverence, a deep comprehension that, unlike anything else, sharing a meal is a way to bond. “I love to see people happy here, having a memorable experience over a plate of food at one of my tables,” Bassolino-Meadlock says. And at Franco’s, a place at a table is a place in the family.
Franco’s Italian Restaurant is located at 25241 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach, Alabama 36561. Open daily 11:30 a.m.- 10:00 p.m. For more information, call (251) 981-9800 or visit www.francosorangebeach.com.
2 qts. heavy cream
4 cups powdered sugar
6 pkgs. lady fingers
4 oz. amaretto liqueur
2 oz. dark rum
2 oz. Kahlua
32 oz. mascarpone cheese
1 tbsp. salt
2 cups espresso
Unsweetened cocoa powder
In a mixer, whip together cream, sugar, and eggs until stiff. Add amaretto and mascarpone and beat mixture together until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine Kahlua, rum, and espresso and stir. In a large, straight-sided glass serving bowl, line bottom with half of the lady fingers and drizzle half of the espresso mixture over lady fingers to soak. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over first layer of lady fingers and level, using a spatula. Dust with cocoa powder, then repeat to create another layer of espresso-soaked lady fingers and mascarpone. Dust last layer of mascarpone with cocoa powder. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.