The ruling powers behind Francesca's empire couldn't have picked a more appropriate location to launch their small plate concept. Francesca's Forno is literally the corner of North, Damen and Milwaukee, the city's trendiest six-way. The atmosphere inside is every bit as jumping as the Damen Blue Line stop just across the street. It may be hard to hear what your companions are saying, but the view of Milwaukee Avenue pedestrians is probably more entertaining anyway.
The bartenders considerately categorize their wine list under headings like "Tasty Crowd Pleasers," "Rich and Flavorful" and so on. A stereotypical Bucktown starving artist can indulge in a $5.50 Prima Terra Pinot Grigio while the surgeon with the three-flat next to him can splurge for the $145 bottle of La Brancaia "il Blu" from Tuscany.
Servers are PhD level in Francesca's food-wine pairings. Drinks in hand, tables select antipasti starters. In the blue ribbon category are the fava e piselli, ($4) consisting of fava beans, sweet peas and pecorino romano as well as tonno alla puttanesca ($6), a Puttanecsca-style take on Sicilian tuna. And what respectable restaurant doesn't offer a cheese plate this year? Don't miss the ricotta e miele ($5), a selection of hand-dipped ricotta, acacia honey, sea salt and black pepper.
Pizzas and pastas illustrate equal spontaneity. Especially clever is the Vongole pizza ($9) with clams, garlic, red chiles and cacio. Save room for the naked Ravioli ($9). Not as controversial as it sounds, this creation resembles a light gnocchi with brown butter, sage and tomato. Meat lovers feast on costoletta di maiale ($18), a grilled double pork chop with roasted peach in a balsamic glaze.
Desserts share well, especially the tasting portions. All are delicious but try to maneuver the biscotti assoritit with espresso gelato and whipped cream, near your plate as one spoonful won't be enough.
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Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Robin Wright