Franco's Ristorante & Pizzeria is a pure classic in The Caldwells. Just say the name to local folks and chances are they'll smile and say, "ah, Franco's!"
The restaurant has earned its reputation with its longevity—first opening its doors in its current and only spot in 1977, not long after the whole Essex Plaza opened for business.
Aside from a detour a few years ago, it's also been under the same ownership the whole time. Caldwell resident Salvatore Lo Brutto is "Franco," and to this very day, he works almost every day, while he says that his wife sometimes helps out on Fridays.
In those earlier days, there weren't as many pizza places around, and Franco's opened its spacious dining room—hands down, it has the largest of any pizzeria in the area with even a cool counter and a total of three rooms—and built an empire slice by slice.
It changed with the times, but not too much; a corner jukebox was an early fixture, eating quarters as fast as customers devoured calzones.
Later on, there was always a video game in the vestibule where kids fought aliens and crunched their crust.
In terms of size, Franco's has a menu that matches it's restaurant. All the usual Italian menu suspects are offered in the chicken (listed as "poultry"), veal and seafood categories. Newcomers to the pizzeria's menu lineup include a selection of nine wraps (the shrimp Caesar sounds good) and paninis (of note is the eggplant, mozzarella, roasted peppers and arugula).
Standout items include an "Italian Hot Dog" (it's even offered "all the way") and clams casino is featured among the hot appetizer list.
Under "Specialty Dinners," there's plenty to choose from, including rigatoni gorgonzola and "Penne Alla Franco's," which has the pasta sauteed in a garlic oil with chicken, roasted peppers, mozzarella, crushed tomatoes and basil.
Perhaps the coolest nod to it's past is Franco's side orders of meatballs under a "platters" heading, and calling it "3 in a dish." Now that's '70s.
Of course, the main anchor in all of this is the pizza. With a few notable exceptions, Franco's plays it's hand traditionally with toppings. There is a "specialty" lineup, with palette-pleasing creations such as a white broccoli pie, a Hawaiian and a bruschetta pie.
Specialty pies come in three sizes (16-inch round, square and pan), and your own combinations can also come in 10-inch personal and medium 14-inch styles.
It's fitting that Franco's is the last stop in our Best Pizza of The Caldwells contest, as its calling card has always been pizza. The restaurant's brisk dinnertime business of families proves this. In fact, in four decades, this writer has mostly only had plain pizza there, albeit an absolute ton of it. How does the plain pie, circa 2010, taste?
The judges for this round are Editor Mike Pignataro and Contributor Ron Albanese.
This trip brought back memories from when I was a little kid going into Franco's for slices with my grandfather while my mother and grandmother shopped at Marshalls or Bradlees.
I totally don't remember what the pizza tasted like back then, but it definitely resonated with me this time. I really enjoyed this pizza. It's medium-thick crust was cooked to perfection, the cheese was very flavorful—a bit oily, but it didn't bother me—and the sauce added just the right touch.
The slice was very hearty and filling with the crisp, yet soft-on-the-inside crust beneath a good amount of cheese that packed a lot of flavor and held the sauce's heat in well. Aside from being a little extra hot, the sauce was tasty, didn't stand out, but was certainly noticeable.
I thought this was a great last stop—and one I'll definitely make again!
Cheese: There was a lot of mozzarella on the pizza; at first I was worried it would overpower things, but it actually made the pie better. It was very oily, which in this case again worked in its favor. It was less than stringly, much more than spotty and gave good coverage over the sauce.
Sauce: As for that "sugo," it was great—in quantity and taste. A liberal use of oregano made it even better. A nice touch was that because of the heavy use of cheese, it stayed hot underneath, which was cool.
Crust: It did its job of holding up the abundance of above ingredients well. It was cooked to a slight crisp, but the soft dough inside the edges was nice.
Overall: I was worried at first—would it be as good as I remember? I also wanted to make sure I was rating with a clear head. I'm relieved and happy to say that Franco's pizza lived up to it's reputation, with a solid, good tasting plain pie.
It's a great, needs-your-attention, head-down-toward-the-plate pizza with slipping, slidin' cheese, hot sauce and crunchy crust.
Those wanting something closer to the old days, before all kinds of combinations and toppings, would enjoy this—and so would anyone else.
Franco's is pretty low-key about its place in the pizza history of The Caldwells, and it should be played up a bit, especially since they don't seem to be resting on laurels.
Franco's Ristorante & Pizzeria
Address: 907 Bloomfield Ave., West Caldwell
Price of large cheese pizza: $12.90
Taste tested on: May 13, 2010
Contest Notes: Well, that's it—we have sampled the pizza of every place in The Caldwells. We have been up and down Bloomfield Avenue and in between, from the long-standing places to the new kids on the block.
Next week, as we prepare to announce a winner of the Best Pizza of The Caldwells contest, we'll post some of our reflections of the contest.
The Caldwells Patch has already visited Forte, Calandra's, Nicco's, Cedar Grill and Pizza, Pizza and Sandwich Barn, Tony D's, Domino's and Papa John's , Michael's, Russillo, Vitella's Cucina and Frank's Trattoria.