Franco’s Italian Bistro (803-805 Frederick Road, Catonsville,  788-0075, francosofcatonsville.com) is the newest restaurant to open on Catonsville’s main drag. The owners have been successfully running the Italian restaurant, Gianni’s, in a Home Depot parking lot for a while now, and if they can make it there, one would think their new location would also be a winner. Franco’s occupies a much more serene and picturesque location, with large glass windows facing other quaint little shops and no big box stores in sight.
The owners have invested quite a lot of money in Franco’s brick oven, which is prominently displayed behind the large L-shaped bar and is one of the first things you notice. And they’ve made good use of it too. On my first visit, I had the locavore pizza ($14.99), which had a well-made crust and toppings—grilled asparagus, roasted red peppers, broccoli rabe, and roasted garlic—that had the perfect amount of caramelization and crunch. But I was really enamored by the restaurant’s gnocchi ($12.49). The little dumplings were light, fluffy, and delicate, with a thick tomato cream sauce dappled with ricotta. It was so delicious, I almost forgot my manners enough to lick the bowl. On the strength of these two items, I planned a return trip with my son and a friend.
As with my first visit, Franco’s was busting at the seams. It doesn’t take reservations and seats fill up quickly. As we waited, it gave me a moment to check the place out. The vaulted ceiling and wine racks kind of give Franco’s a ski chalet feel. The bar crowd was jovial and loud, but not obnoxiously so. It has a warm feel, perfect for a cold night.
The staff at Franco’s is mostly a family affair: The owner’s sons and daughters man the kitchen and dining area. I wondered if our waiter was family, because he seemed a little bored, as though he was doing this gig under duress. I ordered the wine that was on special that evening, the house pinot grigio ($6), while my friend ordered the La Maialina Chianti ($7).
While I sipped my wine and contemplated my order, I heard a gagging sound from my companion. “Here taste this, it’s vinegar!” he said, pushing his glass toward me. I told him I’d take his word for it as I looked around for our waiter. He immediately replaced the wine with a new glass. What circumstances transpired that resulted in us getting vinegared wine, I will never be able to guess.
My son, who is a huge fan of pizza as a food group, got the classic cheese ($13). The pizzas are large enough that we could all have a slice as well. He also ordered the steamed mussels ($10.99) which were also to be shared. My friend ordered the veal saltimbocca ($19.99) mainly to irritate the vegetarian in the group, which is me. I was still dreaming of the gnocchi, but wanting to try other things on the menu, I ordered the wild mushroom ravioli ($14.49). We also ordered some garlic bread ($3.99) which turned out to be a stroke of brilliance because the mussels did not come with any bread to soak up the buttery sauce.
Assuming that we’d have the mussels and bread to nosh on while our entrees were prepared was a mistake—in no time at all, everything came all at once. The mussels were well cooked in their garlicky, buttery juices, and the garlic bread, which was heavy on the butter and garlic and oh so good, worked well to soak up everything.
Same as the last time, the pizza was perfectly done. The crust was just past brown and had the nutty, crunchy flavor of a high-protein flour. It was completely covered with mozzarella. My preference would have been to get something with less cheese like the margherita, but the classic cheese was a winner in my boy’s eyes.
However, the pasta and veal both had some problems. The ravioli were undercooked, with a thick, floury flavor and a texture that reminded me of chewing on cardboard. They were stuffed with wild mushrooms and ricotta, which would have been tasty had they not been surrounded by failure. There was no amount of sauce that could have saved this dish, but it was just made worse by the mushroom marsala sauce that was liberally poured over top, as it tasted only of salt. Perhaps my disappointment was heightened by the expectations put forth by my previous experience—I almost cried a little.
My friend had a similar complaint with his veal saltimbocca, a veal scaloppini topped with prosciutto de Parma, melted mozzarella, and sage in a marsala sauce over fresh spinach. The veal was unevenly cooked, with outsides like leather, and the prosciutto added to the excessive saltiness of the marsala sauce. It wasn’t an entire loss: The spinach was perfect. It was fresh and cooked just until wilting, making it the best part of the dish.
Wanting to leave on a good note, we decided to order dessert. The tiramisu mousse ($4.50) was mascarpone, espresso, and ladyfingers blended until fluffy, with the ladyfinger crumbs adding texture to the mousse. It’s a fun way to have your tiramisu. The almond cake ($4.50) was a little dry and didn’t taste of almonds at all, but it had a thick layer of cream on top, which helped to offset the dryness.
At the end of the meal, when the check came, we realized that Franco’s was a little too pricey to make it a frequent hangout, especially given the terrible quality of the entrees we’d ordered. It did have some good qualities: The atmosphere was warm, the pizza was decent, and the service was tolerable. Time will tell whether these things are enough to bring us back again.
Franco’s Italian Bistro is open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.