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Sharing the joy of cooking

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
June 29, 2006

I have a vision of Francesca Ippolitto.

She was probably the sort of Italian grandmother who loved nothing more than to feed her family, to watch them devour a home-cooked meal, to send then home with full bellies. She was probably quite proud of her kitchen and her cooking and made food the centerpiece of every social gathering. She was probably gregarious, self-confident, welcoming, and warm.

I have this mental image because I've watched her grandson, Joseph Auciello, work behind the counter of the Italian restaurant he opened nine months ago. Everything he does, he does with love and pride. From scooping heaping ladles of veal cacciatore into takeout containers for waiting customers, to carefully cutting thick slices of meatloaf stuffed with Genoa salami and provolone cheese, to explaining what made him decide after years of working in restaurants to start one of his own, he's a man who seems to delight in his work.

"I enjoy cooking -- I really, really do," said Auciello, a first-generation Italian-American and Somerville native. "It's something I take passion in, and when you do something you love it shows in your work and shows in your quality of food."

The small restaurant, which also offers catering service, has seating for 19, but despite the tables it feels more like a take-out joint. The menu offers salads, wraps, sandwiches, Sicilian-style pizzas, and cooked-to-order entrees. There's also a steamtable of hot specials that change daily. They often look so enticing that I've arrived intending to order one thing and -- after eyeing the display of, say, stuffed shells with meatballs (fantastic) or ravioli with chicken parmesan (ditto) -- left with something entirely different. Prices are very reasonable, with most items under 10 bucks.

The specials, listed on an above-the-counter chalkboard, are consistently good bets. One Saturday, a baked haddock special ($10) with either rice pilaf or macaroni and cheese turns out to be the finest piece of seafood I've had in a while. Haddock, like many white fish, can be a bit boring, but this one was deliciously jazzed up with a topping of Ritz crackers, butter, and parsley.

Italian-style meatloaf ($9), usually served Thursday, is excellent, too. It's blended with bread crumbs, which make it moist and tender, and Romano cheese, which adds subtle flair. Sweet canned corn and mashed red-skin potatoes round out the meal. Tuesday's carved turkey dinner ($9), complete with cranberry sauce and stuffing, is another favorite of mine. The flavorful meat made me ponder: Why do we typically roast turkeys only once a year?

Auciello isn't heavy-handed with oil, butter, salt, or fancy herbs. His recipes tend to be simple, fresh, healthful fare seasoned with nothing more elaborate than garlic and parsley. Sometimes his dishes need more punch, even a sprinkling of salt or pepper. But when it comes to seasoning, underdoing it is better than overdoing it. Still, the brothy chicken noodle soup ($4) borders on bland, and I wish the garlic-Romano-white wine sauce on the chicken-broccoli ziti ($8) was more garlicky.

But the intense taste and aroma of garlic dominate the Florentina pizza ($12), a tomato-less pie heaped with chopped spinach, Romano, and mozzarella. This is a flavor-packed pizza that suffers not a bit from the absence of meat. The Parma pizza ($14), with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and basil, doesn't work as well; its flavors aren't strong enough to counterbalance the doughy base. Keep in mind these are thick-crusted, bready, Sicilian-style pizzas, which can be an acquired taste. Rather than slender round pies cut into triangular slices, they're rectangular ones divided into 12 fat squares.

I love the arancini ($3), tennis ball-sized mounds of creamy rice mixed with ground beef or spinach and cheese. They're not leaden or overly filling, as arancini can sometimes be, and they're especially good with sweet-tangy marinara sauce, full of zing and zest.

I had high hopes for the veal parmigiana ($7 sandwich, $9 dinner), touted on the menu as "real," but the meat was so rubbery that I left it uneaten. The sandwich version isn't helped by an untoasted submarine bun that becomes soggy with tomato sauce. The flat noodles in the ground beef lasagna ($7) are oddly soggy, too, although I like the lightness of this dish, which is layered with bechamel sauce and fresh mozzarella rather than heavier ricotta. The meatless lasagna is made the traditional way, with ricotta-cheese filling.

The restaurant takes its name, of course, from the late Sicilian-born Francesca Ippolitto herself. "Her name never got carried on, even though the names of my other grandmother and two grandfathers did," Auciello explained. "So I decided to name it after her."

And that's about the loveliest tribute to a grandmother that a grandchild could make.

FRANCESCA'S KITCHEN

Cuisine: Italian

Address: 162 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington

Phone: 781-781-0005

Hours: Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun closed.

Prices: $2-$14.

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