653 Worcester Road (Route 9 west), Framingham
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday closed
Visa, MC, AE, Discover accepted
The phones were ringing incessantly. It was late Saturday afternoon, and six of us had gathered for dinner at Franco's Cafe Italiano. But we could barely speak over the persistent trilling of the telephones, which rang with mounting takeout orders. Meanwhile, a dozen people were waiting to order food in person, and every seat in the place was filled.
From our plastic-tablecloth-covered table, we watched in awe. This, apparently, was a typical weekend night at Franco's, a strip mall pizzeria with a loyal following and unexpectedly homey touches, including photos of owner Franco Bruno's family and framed newspaper articles lauding the Natick and Weston high school girls' varsity soccer teams (Bruno is coach of the Natick team and former coach of the Weston team, which won the state championship twice during his tenure). These personal details make it clear that Bruno has a lot of love for the surrounding communities. And his booming business makes it clear that the surrounding communities love him back.
I understand why. No frozen crusts here -- you can watch the bakers twirl homemade dough -- and, except for the pesto, the sauces are also made on the premises, including a white sauce of cream, milk, butter, nutmeg, and some mystery ingredients. The pizzas ($5.50-$15) come small (10 inches), medium (12 inches), large (16 inches), and ''supersize" (18 inches). The crusts, baked to a lovely golden brown, are chewy and sturdy, unless you order a thick crust, which is light, doughy, and two to three times thicker than a standard one. A basic cheese topping combines mozzarella and provolone; besides white sauce pizzas there are pesto pizzas (available with basil pesto or sun-dried tomato pesto), sauceless pizzas (brushed only with olive oil), and ''gourmet" pizzas.
Our top choices were pizza di prosciutto ($8, $10, $14), which gets forceful flavor from prosciutto, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and Romano; and chicken pesto pizza ($8.50, $11.50, $14.50), heaped with grilled chicken, broccoli, provolone, and mozzarella. Alla Romana ($7.50, $9.50, $13.50), with its salty blend of rosemary, bacon, and onions, was a close runner-up.
Hefty calzones ($6.25-$9.50) are made with a trio of cheeses (mozzarella, provolone, and ricotta) and zippy marinara sauce. Chicken broccoli ziti in garlic-butter sauce ($9) has bite-sized medallions of thin-sliced chicken. Gnocchi with veal parmesan ($9.50) has forgettable gnocchi but tender, deep-fried veal. And the meatballs are great. They're made using a recipe from Bruno's mother, Tilde Lenti Bruno, that contains bread soaked in milk, making them very soft.
A few items get a thumbs-down. Insalata Caprese ($5.75) -- a salad of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, artichokes, and romaine -- was smashed into a plastic takeout container even though we were sit-down customers; the tomatoes were tasteless, the cheese gummy, and the lettuce brown. The garlic bread ($2.50) was dry and not very garlicky. We bypassed desserts (cannoli, Oreo cookie pie, half-moon cookies) because they're not homemade.
Bruno, who was born in Italy and grew up in Argentina, opened Franco's eight years ago and for 18 years before that owned another pizzeria called Tano's. ''Tano" is the nickname many Argentines give to Italians; it's a shortened form of Italiano. ''Through all my life, until I moved here, nobody called me Franco," recalled Bruno. ''It was either Tano or Tano-Franco, but not Franco." But when he had the chance to relocate Tano's to better real estate, he changed its name, expanded its menu, and fancied up its dining room with an eye-catching mural and all those family photos. ''I'm a family man, like a good Italian," Bruno explained. ''We always put pictures of our family everywhere."
Service is bare-bones, and customers bus their own tables, which can get a little sticky. Still, ''The bottom line," said one of my companions, ''is would I come back here if I lived in the area? And I definitely would." Score another loyal customer for Bruno, whose loving touches once again keep them coming back.