Syracuse north side restaurant cooks up memorable meals
By Christopher Malone
Francesca’s Cucina, located at 545 N. Salina St., in the heart of Syracuse’s Little Italy, refuses to quit after 14 years. Since the Angeloro brothers, George and Gary, opened its doors in 2004, the restaurant has been aging gracefully as a Central New York staple. As relentless (never stubborn) as an Italian grandmother — the restaurant is named after the brothers’ matriarch — the family business is on a mission to live up to generations of Angeloro restaurateurs.
The upscale restaurant sits on a typical city street, a wide four-lane cement platter running through a culturally diverse neighborhood, the “nort’ side” to Syracusans, which was notoriously Italian back in the day. It still is Italian, but it’s now joined by a plethora of other cultures — a figurative bouquet of vibrant flowers on a mantle that residents are proud of and visitors admire.
Check for the glowing red and green neon sign when driving by. The blacked-out windows present a misleading first impression. The restaurant offers lunch Monday to Friday and dinner Monday through Saturday. Reservations are strongly encouraged, and it’s best to plan more than a few days in advance. Even on the sunny Tuesday evening of our meal the place was buzzing.
Francesca’s presents a darkened atmosphere, rooms have unapologetically dim lighting and bulbs perform their best imitation of candles (which also decorate the tables). It’s a bold, romantic atmosphere for couples and, at the same time, encourages social groups.
Our foursome followed the hostess from the bar area, which offers ample counter seating as well as high tops, past a cooler of dry-aged beef and out the back door. The patio is a magical place. In parallel fashion to the Pevensie children first entering Narnia, the indoor-outdoor transition is breathtaking. An interior blend of industrial and rustic changes to a luscious area decked out with vibrant green plants and vines clinging to neighboring buildings, glass mosaic décor and chandeliers, and a fire pit with community seating.
The hostess brought us to the table and told us who our server would be, who soon came to the table for personal and menu introductions. He took our drink orders the second time he stopped by, bringing a bowl of warm, fresh bread topped with rosemary and sundried tomato. It paired well with the tomato-based dipping sauce, which wasn’t overly spicy.
Our meal was started with three appetizers. The Utica greens ($13.99), a regional staple, was an easy go-to. The greens weren’t overly bitter and the spiciness settled in slowly, but it wasn’t overwhelming when it peaked. The escarole was joined by prosciutto, hot peppers, breadcrumbs and Romano cheese. Anyone in Upstate New York can get into a debate about greens, yet we agreed that these were truly delicious.
Next up was the goat cheese fritter ($9.99). The lightly breaded and fried crispy shell containing warmed goat cheese was also a hit. It sat on spicy fra diavolo sauce and was accompanied by eight crunchy garlic crostini pieces. The sauce packed a little bit more punch than the greens, but won the hearts of varying taste buds. The cheese itself was soft and flavorful, but not gamey.
We also enjoyed the night’s special appetizer — lamb over toasted pine nut, lemon and chive risotto ($14.99). The Australian lamb lollipops, lightly dressed in a mint and port wine demi glaze, were very tender and the Italian rice staple was soft and creamy, the result of being cooked with care and stirred constantly with attentive hands.
Our friends opted for a couple leafy bowls — a Caesar salad with grilled chicken ($15.98) and the apple gorgonzola salad with scallops ($21.98). They looked great, prepared well and large enough to share between two people. My partner got the chicken saltimbocca ($19.99), and I opted for the crab-stuffed salmon ($24.99).
Side salads did come with the latter two entrees. Unfortunately, we never saw them. Frankly, we forgot about them since we were so involved with the food on the table.
The chicken scallopini, topped with prosciutto and sage, is pounded and coated with aged provolone. It sat on a bed of linguini, mushrooms and spinach. The poultry was delicious, but the provolone’s flavor was a standout. The mushrooms, which were sautéed in Madeira wine sauce, could have melted in my mouth. The flavor was moving and almost caused me to slide out of my chair.
The salmon, cradling a generous scoop of crab, sat on a bed of asparagus, which sat atop a bed of risotto. To the side sat a small puddle of shrimp and lobster chive veloute. The seafood dish was a generous portion and flavorful. The salmon was beautiful in color and could be easily cut into with a fork. The asparagus was crisp and flavorful, and this saffron-flavored risotto was soft and also creamy.
Cue the tray of homemade desserts for the finale. We didn’t pace ourselves accordingly, so we consumed dessert by staring. After a discussion, settling on a dessert to split would have been a difficult task, since we had two confident choices per person. Francesca’s would be a great option for an after dinner or dessert date. Pairing any of the choices with a coffee or glass of wine and great conversation would be a worthy option.
Our evening ended as the sun began to hint at its retiring for the day. Three glasses of wine, three appetizers and four entrees, before tip, came to $156.98. The quality of the meal was worth the cost.
454 N. Salina St., Syracuse
Monday: 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; 5 – 9 p.m.
Tuesday – Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; 5 – 10 p.m.
Saturday: 5 – 10 p.m.