As they say in New York … “Who Knew”.
Cafe Franco’s is a little Italian joint tucked away in the same shopping plaza as Belk at MP 7 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina that has this reviewer saying Mama Mia!
Now I should say right up front (and those that know me well, have often heard me say) that my favorite Italian restaurant in the world is La Puttanesca on 8th Ave in New York, close second and third favorites are in Cincinnati and Vegas respectively.
Cafe Franco is designed like a lot of New York Italian eateries, with a bar, booths and tables, but this ‘ristorante Italiano’ has a real Italian Vespa parked just inside the door. The scooter belongs to chef/owner Franco Mineo, a native of Palermo, Sicily who rides it often around the Outer Banks.
So, while I am sure this will surprise some of my friends, a recent visit to Cafe Franco in Kill Devil Hills has me rearranging the order of my favorite Italian restaurants, based almost entirely on the strength of one dish, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca.
A lunch visit and a last-second menu choice switch, put me behind a plate of the most perfectly cooked and seasoned pasta I have eaten in years. I had originally ordered an Italian sausage grinder (it was after all, lunch). My dining partner was quick to point out that she had steered me to Franco’s because I had said that I was craving some pasta. She was right, neurons in total chaos, I rushed up to the bar and grabbing a menu, asked the server if in fact it was too late to switch.
A quick head poke into the kitchen confirmed that the sausage had yet to leave the refrigerator and I was on the path to an olive and garlic experience that birthed the need for this review and a second thought about where my loyalty lies with respect to Italian restaurants.
As I said, my choice was spaghetti alla puttanesca. Puttanesca is a lowly pasta dish, simple to prepare and often eaten by the locals in southern Italy and Sicily. Salty, sweet and often spicy it is said to have originated in the 50’s at Rancio Fellone, a famous restaurant on the Italian island of Ischian. The moment of inspiration came, when near closing one evening, owner, Sandro Petti found a group of customers gathered around one of his tables. Petti was low on ingredients and told them he didn’t have enough to make them a meal. They complained of the hour and that they were starving. “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi (Make any kind of garbage),” they said. In this usage, puttanata is an Italian noun meaning something worthless. It derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana.
Petti had four tomatoes, some anchovies, capers, olives and garlic and the meal he crafted with these humble ingredients became spaghetti alla puttanesca.
Chef Franco Mineo of these barrier islands, the Outer Banks, also has a masterful touch. Turning these simple yet powerful ingredients into my favorite pasta dish. The sauce is just slightly spicy (I ordered mine ‘fra diavolo’ or extra spicy), salty but not overly and the flavor of the olives and garlic is in perfect balance. Several pasta varieties can be used in puttanesca, by without doubt it is best served with spaghetti. Mine was perfectly al dente, served with a spoon for twirling its unbroken lengths onto my fork and the warm bread and pesto olive oil made this my favorite lunch this year.
My lunch date said her tortellini was good enough to have been ordered again, her third time in as many visits. Here is another surprise from Cafe Franco, the portion size was more than adequate, without being ridiculous, allowing us the added pleasure of ordering dessert.
A slice of Italian cream cake and a healthy piece of strawberry cheesecake (shipped in from the Cheescake Factory) along with two very well made cappuccino and this was indeed, a perfect lunch. Out the door, with tip for a meal worthy of any major metropolitan area for less than $50 means not only was it perfect, it was a great value.
Chef Mineo, Grazie Mille!! I will return, with friends to explore every nook and cranny of your menu!
Cover Photo: Cafe Franco’s Facebook Page