Sunday, February 27, 2011

Francesco's Ristorante

Franklin Avenue is not really a true "Little Italy" anymore. There are very few Italian-Americans who live on and just off the avenue these days and the number of Italian-American businesses continues to dwindle. It seems like every time I go there another restaurant has closed and/or another small shop has changed ownership and is no longer an Italian-American establishment.

That said, there are still a number of great Italian bakeries and restaurants on Franklin Avenue and Francesco's Ristorante is chief among them. Now, I know that Carbone's is widely regarded the king (or Don) of Franklin Avenue, but for me and for my Italian-American wife, Francesco's is the place to go. Indeed, Francesco's is one of the few Italian restaurants to which my wife will go ("why should I pay money to eat something that's not as good as what I make you for dinner?").

The HFG turns 43 this coming week and to celebrate we decided to go to Francesco's. Being a Saturday night we made a reservation, which is an absolute must. In fact, the one time we showed up without a reservation we were lucky to get seated in the bar area and then only because we go there quite a bit and are known to the owner and the staff.

While I know that we get well-treated because we go there quite a bit, the service at Francesco’s is always very good and we were made to feel special beginning with the very first time we set foot in the place. The staff at Francesco’s is friendly, attentive, and hardworking; but never overbearing or obnoxious.

We started with two appetizers. The first was a special; roasted eggplant with mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto over a bed of greens. It was outstanding. The eggplant was perfectly cooked and well-complimented (but not overwhelmed) by the mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto. Similarly, the mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto were all fresh.

Our second appetizer was what I think is Francesco’s signature appetizer; the hot seafood antipasti for two ($16). This is an extremely generous portion of fried calamari, clams casino, stuffed mushroom caps, and a couple of very large shrimp wrapped in prosciutto. It also comes with a very, very, very hot red pepper which is not, under any circumstances whatsoever, for the uninitiated or the faint of heart (or stomach). The calamari are always perfectly fried and the cocktail sauce is tasty (and not some bland, watered down tomato paste) and the shrimp really are quite delicious.

Because we had two rather large appetizers we decided to skip the salad course, but when tomatoes are in season, you have to try to the Sicilian salad ($11), which is fresh tomatoes, kalamata, vidali onions, and fresh green peppers tossed in a homemade virgin olive oil dressing with basil (:> x 5).

For dinner, my wife had the clams and calamari fra diavlo ($29); i.e. clams and squid over linguini and in a spicy marinara sauce. It is sometimes hard to get excited about marinara sauce because it really has become a common element in American cuisine, but Francesco’s marinara sauce is fresh and has a wonderful taste but which is not so powerful as to overwhelm the clams and calamari. I know $29 is not cheap for an entrée, but given the quality and given the extremely generous portion, it is a very fair price.

I had one of the specials for dinner; chicken served in large chunks and with a slight demi glaze, together with sausage, peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and capers in a red vinaigrette. It reminded me of a dish my wife likes to make once and while (pork chops with vinegar-soaked peppers) and while I am partial to Mrs. HFG’s cooking, this was simply amazing as the blend of flavors was great and the vinaigrette gave it a wonderful kick.

The only (minor) criticism I had is that it is served with a side of penne a la vodka but would have been better-matched had it been served over a bed of penne (or linguini or spaghetti) so that the pasta could have soaked in the vinaigrette mixed with the demi-glaze. Happily, however, when I told the waiter my thought, he said they serve this dish as a lunch special from time to time and it is served at lunch over pasta (memo to file, take a lunch at Francesco’s in the next 30 days).

In fact, one of the great things about Francesco’s is its specials, which rotate regularly and which are definitely a strength. My philosophy at Francesco’s is I assume that I am going to have a special and it is only if I am not drawn to one do I look at the regular menu.

Francesco’s is very much an old school Italian-American restaurant (even though it hasn’t been around that long) and if going to Carbone’s is like being in the Godfather (which it can be), going to Francesco’s is like being in Good Fellas – 20 years more modern but every bit as authentically Italian-American. In fact, there are numerous veal, beef, chicken, and pasta offerings and all the traditional favorites, from lobster ravioli (:> x 10) to veal picatta. And, like a lot of such places (such as Casa Bella down in New Jersey, which I reviewed last year) it occupies quite well a stratum between fine dining and neighborhood cooking.

Sometimes for desert we walk across the street to Mozzicato's and have gelato, but Francesco's has a number of sumptuous cakes and other very nice deserts. Last night, however, we skipped desert and went home and had some of the magnificent carrot cake my wife made for my birthday (:> x 10,000) – just about the best birthday present the HFG could get!

Anyway, here's the link to Francesco's website -

Friday, February 18, 2011

Brazil Grill

Last Friday a friend took me to lunch at the Brazil Grill on Park Street in Hartford (between Heath and Dorothy Streets on the north side of Park). It was not the first time I had been there (and it won’t be the last) and I had been looking forward to it all week, and not just because my friend was buying.

If you even causally follow this blog you know how much I love Portuguese food. I also love Brazilian food, but the two don't have all that much in common, notwithstanding the relationship between the two countries.

Indeed, the relationship between them is a lot like the relationship between English cuisine (if you can call it that) and American food. There are some common elements, but the latter has been impacted by so many other influences that it is something wholly distinct from the former.

In fact, there's an old saying that the British and the Americans are two people separated by a common language. The same could be said of the Portuguese and the Brazilians and there are a lot of similarities between the two relationships: an historic seafaring European power and its former colony; a colony which developed into a country still related in a lot of ways to the mother country but which has its own history; a new people who speak the same language as that spoken in the mother country, but with unique phrases, words, pronunciations, and idioms; and a new country whose people have their own ethnic identity which is fusion of different influences far beyond its colonial inheritance.

Anyway, my friend is naturalized U.S. citizen who came from Brazil when she was a little girl (ema pequeno menina) so she was the perfect lunch companion (and not just because her Portuguese is about 1,000 times better than mine), which was exactly why I suggested the Brazil Grill as our destination.

The Brazil Grill is like several other churrascarias at which I have eaten. It has a large dining area, with several TV’s where my friend told me that every Brazilian in Hartford – her included – watched all of Brazil’s matches in the World Cup (Copo D Mundo). It is, however, a self-service affair, and you wait in a long (and crowded) line that winds its way past several serving stations. The initial ones have many traditional Brazilian dishes, such as black beans and rice and stewed ochre (both of which ended up on my plate and which were delicious) and (about once a week) feijoada.

For the uninitiated, feijoada may well be the national dish of Brazil. It derives from the stews that the African slaves and indigenous people made from whatever they could gather and the parts of various animals the Portuguese colonists didn’t want – an early and improvised form of nose-to-tail cooking, if you will. Feijoada has a special significance to many Brazilians (at least as explained to me) because it is both a reminder of who they were and perhaps representative of who they are, a blend of European and indigenous influences (a particularly delicious blend in the case of say Adriana Lima or Gisele Bundchen, but that’s another story). Not only is feijoada an important part of the Brazilian cultural identity, it is also amazing and if you’ve never had it, you really are missing out.

Anyway, back to the churrascaria. After you make your way through the preliminaries, you end up at the cutting board, where a friendly fellow who speaks precious little English (which isn’t a problem since most of the customers are Brazilians) is happy to take various spits off the open flame and slice as much meat as you want (:> x 20). The offerings change regularly (most likely based on availability and the mood of the cooks) but thanks to my friend’s fluent Portuguese and her knowledge of churrascaria we were served generous portions of pork loin and picanha (which is the rump cut of a steak). We also got several plump pork sausages right off another spit.

The picanha was amazing. A lot of people say that the rump cut is the most tender and they may be right as our picanha was extremely tender, moist, and had that wonderful flavor you can get only by exposing beef to an open flame (:> x 10).

I also loved the pork loin. It was perfectly marinated and cooked just enough, but not so much as to dry it out. The juice was dripping out of it even before I took a bite (:> x 10).

The sausages were also great. They had a wonderful flavor, were quite juicy, and had just a little bit of char on the outer casing (:> x10).

I have no idea how much out lunch cost as my companion picked up the tab (one neat feature is you pay by the pound), but it can’t be too expensive. Brazil Grill caters to a blue-collar (and incredibly hardworking) crowd of Brazilian immigrants and first generation Americans who are looking for a no-frills taste of home, not a fancy fine dining experience. I am glad they can find it at the Brazil Grill because that means I get my own little taste of Brazil as well (:> x 25).

Like a lot of classic ethnic restaurants Brazil Grill also has all sorts of interesting authentic drinks (I had passion fruit juice) and candies (yes, I had some on the drive back to work :>), but it doesn’t have a website. Here are some links, however, to a Yahoo! map and some reviews –

Sunday, February 6, 2011

J Restaurant/Bar

About ten years I asked a pretty young lady to go to lunch with me. I was somewhat surprised that she said yes and when she asked where I wanted to go, I blurted out “Pizza Plus on Washington Street.” She said nothing, which I took as a sign of great skepticism and likely regret for having agreed to lunch, but I assured her that she would not be disappointed.

When I met her outside Pizza Plus I could tell that her skepticism and regret was starting to turn to anger because Pizza Plus was an ordinary looking urban pizza place in a so-so area. I asked her to keep an open mind and to trust me, which reluctantly she agreed to do.

As she started to look at the menu I could see her whole demeanor change. Pizza Plus, you see, was no ordinary urban pizza joint. Its owner, Jordan Dikegros, who I understand had inherited the business from his parents, had a passion for cooking and had tacked onto the traditional pizza place menu a number of very nice entrees, including lobster ravioli, which I suggested she try. After she took her first bite her eyes lit up, she put her fork down, and she said with a smile “you were right.” :>

In fact, everyone I knew that went to Pizza Plus - myself included - had the same reaction when they had their first taste of Jordan Dikegros’ cooking. It was as if Dikegros had figured out how to turn the time/space/food continuum on its head and transform an ordinary pizza joint into a very good restaurant.

I went to Pizza Plus many, many times before I met my wife and after we started dating it quickly became a regular on our restaurant rotation. A few years ago, however, Dikegros gutted Pizza Plus, turning it into J Restaurant/Bar. In fact, all that remains of Pizza Plus is a small, light wood-paneled back room which had served as a small function room.

Gutting Pizza Plus was a huge risk, because Dikegros had a great thing going, but from what I am told, he had long dreamed of being a restaurantuer and had finally decided to go all in to realize his dream. I think he made an excellent decision.

Our meal started with some complimentary focaccia and olive oil. The focaccia was very nice, with just a touch of salt. While the olive oil wasn’t up to the standard of Mennula (see below), it was very good.

Last night was miserable, almost freezing, and very rainy, so I decided to start with the cream of mushroom soup, which was one of the soups of the day ($7). It was delicious; nice and creamy with a good flavor that had a slight kick at the back end. It was well-complimented by a small piece of crispy bread which added some texture and some melted cheese, which added some flavor a bit more texture. I thought it was very, very good and Mrs. HFG gave it top marks.

My wife started with the J Signature Salad ($6). It consisted of mixed greens with pear, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and gorgonzola, dressed in a sweet balsamic. The salad was very good and perfectly dressed (a Mrs. HFG pet peeve), though the pear could had not yet reached its perfect stage of ripeness. Overall, my wife gave it a good grade and I also thought it was a very nice salad. I won’t lie, however, I was very pleased when Mrs. HFG said she liked her salad but wished she’d had the cream of mushroom soup. :>

For dinner I had the chicken, tomatoes, and goat cheese over fusilli ($18). The generous portion of chicken meshed well with the tomatoes and goat cheese. The fusilli was nice and fresh and soaked up the fresh olive oil in which the dish was cooked. Overall, it was delicious. :> x 5.

My wife had the Adriattic Brodetto ($28), which consisted of sea bass in a saffron broth and olive oil croutons, with mussels, clams, and shrimp. My wife’s only complaint was that there was a bit of grit on some of the shellfish. Otherwise, she thought it was excellent and I agreed. The balance of textures and flavors was well done and the portions of bass, shellfish, and shrimp were all very respectable.

My wife also had two glasses of a Bontera cab/sav ($8 each, $29 per bottle). I am not a big cab/sav drinker, but she thought it was very good.

With a generous tip for excellent service, our dinner came to $111.64. Not cheap (and certainly not as cheap as Pizza Plus!) but a perfectly fair price to pay for a very nice dinner.

The atmosphere at J is very nice; classy without being pretentious, with appropriate lighting and a very modern, Mediterranean décor with exposed brick. The background music was classic R&B (“Gladys Knight had a great voice” remarked Mrs. HFG), which is one of the few types of music my wife and I both like. As you can see from the picture, there is a small outdoor patio and J also has a very nice bar area.

While the location might turn some people off (Washington Street, between Allen Place and Lincoln Street) it is right across from Hartford Hospital and perfectly safe with a good-sized enclosed parking lot next door.

I won’t lie, I really miss Pizza Plus and I don’t think I am alone. It was an almost magical place of urban legend. It was one of the hidden treasures of Hartford. That said, I am glad Jordan Dikegros was able to realize his dream and I am also glad that my wife and I went there last PM. We had a great meal at a very fair price and we will be going back again.

Anyway, here is the link to J’s website -