The Pie is Cast

Francesco’s offers primo pizza, along with a bounty of other Sicilian delights.

The Margherita pizza is a simple, delicious offering, perfectly done.

Roberto Gonzalez

Former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton once posited an idea he called the Pizza Cognition Theory: The first slice of pizza a child tastes becomes that child’s ideal upon which all other pizzas are compared. Which probably explains why your best friend thinks a deep dish pie from Uno is the best thing ever when you know absolutely that nothing compares to a thin crust from Prato. 

But if the battle for “Best Pizza” rages in your house, the offerings at Francesco’s Ristorante in Maitland might have the makings of a truce.

My own imprinting comes from a childhood in New York, where lots of firm, salty cheese and oil running down your face is a vision of heaven, while my partner looks down her nose at anything not made with fresh mozzarella in the Neapolitan fashion. And yet we both like what comes out of the wood-fired oven of Chef Francesco Aiello. 

The test of a good pizzaiolo is the classic pizza Margherita, a concoction with so few ingredients—dough, sauce, cheese, basil—that there is no room for flaws. And aside from a curious lack of fresh basil, Francesco’s pie ($11.95) comes to the table with a thin, crispy crust and leopard-spotted cornicione (the outer edge) perfectly charred from the blazing hot oven. Sauce is sweet and still tasting of tomatoes, and the cheese has just the right touch of salt. There are other pies, loaded with meats (carne pazza: pepperoni, sausage and ham; $14.25), grilled vegetables (campagnola:, zucchini, eggplant, red peppers and spinach; $14.95), or the Pizza Bomba, which combines both for $15.95. And they all are built on the same very enjoyable base. 

The frittura Siciliana is a winning appetizer. 

There is far more than pizza on the authentically Sicilian menu, starting with the frittura Siciliana appetizer platter ($10.95). Frittura means fried, but these little delicacies remain light and savory: tiny rice ball arancini stuffed with a bit of mozzarella, crispy garbanzo polenta chips and creamy potato croquettes. The “New Insalata di Mare” seafood salad ($9.95) wasn’t as impressive, lacking the absolute freshness one would expect from calamari, shrimp and octopus, but the lemon vinaigrette was good enough to almost rescue the entire dish. 

Secondi, what we call entrées, include a beautifully simple grilled chicken (pollo arrosto, $13.75) browned from a brush of olive oil and lusciously aromatic with rosemary. There also are several veal dishes. But I was particularly taken by the pollo Siciliano ($15.95) a very traditional chicken breast, sautéed and flavorful in a mix of tart capers, artichokes and fresh tomatoes in a savory garlic and wine sauce. It arrived with a portion of flawlessly cooked fresh fettuccini that made me want even more.

Pasta, in fact, is a variable feast, allowing the choice of six styles, including gluten-free, and five house-made sauces, along with classic dishes like a fragrant spaghetti alla carbonara ($12.50) and enormous servings of very meaty lasagna Bolognese ($11.95).

Francesco’s Ristorante
400 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland
Entrees: $10.95-$17.95; pizza $11.95-$15.95

Born and educated in Palermo, Sicily, chef and co-owner Aiello practiced his craft at The Sicilian Restaurant in Casselberry and Rosario Spagnolo’s great Terramia in Lake Mary before opening in Maitland in 2012. Several people whose tastes I trust have been recommending Francesco’s for years, and now I can see why. The pizza battle may go on forever, but Francesco’s could be a good opportunity to win over your pizza-loving friends. 

Just Desserts

After-dinner treats are made by Francesco’s pastry chef father, Paolo Aiello, and include a signature Cassata al Forno sponge cake filled with fresh ricotta and chocolate chips. Also try the cannoli, hand-rolled crispy shells filled with sweet cheese, or, when it’s available, an unusual strawberry tiramisu with cake fingers soaked in Limoncello and layered with fruit and mascarpone.

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