PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
In Summerfield, just by the Lake-Sumter county line, Francesco’s Ristorante showcases the best in family-style Italian comfort food.
Where the old Taverna Red used to be on U.S. 27/441, this 7-month-old establishment is a refreshing addition to the sea of Italian restaurants in and around The Villages.
Francesco’s captures the essence of Tuscany with soft lighting, an earthy color scheme and rustic décor. A large mural depicting a vintage countryside wine cellar welcomes diners as they enter the sizeable dining room. Rows of empty oak wine barrels rigged above the open kitchen add a touch of sophistication and refinement.
Near the kitchen, flickering flames illuminate the brick oven used to craft Francesco’s signature oven-fired pizzas. The bar, a show-stopping centerpiece, creates a neighborhood pub feel with exquisite wooden cabinetry, ample seating and flat-screen TVs. The spacious Garden Room houses a beautiful stone fireplace and is large enough to seat 80 guests.
Equally exquisite is the restaurant’s menu, conceptualized by head chef Noel Bravo and managing partner Franco Esposito. Kathy Funk, who co-owns Francesco’s with Franco and Paul D’Alto from Pomodoro Cafe in Gainesville, said the menu features both traditional and Neapolitan-style dishes, as well as their popular thin-crust pizzas.
“Our pastas are either homemade or imported from Italy,” Kathy said. “And we make all our sauces, stocks, soups and dough from scratch. Nothing is purchased from a store.”
In redesigning the space, Kathy explained, they wanted a warm, comfortable atmosphere that felt like a little slice of Italia. They also wanted to offer food that’s high-quality but affordable.
“We have one dish that is $15, but our entrees range in cost from $10 to $12,” said Kathy.
Since opening in March, the crowds have been steady. Irresistible lunch specials have been well received, but Franco’s Old World charm is what keeps people coming back. He enhances the restaurant’s appeal with his thick Italian accent and immense passion for food. He makes it a point to check in at each table because, for him, good customer service is just as essential as good food.
“This is my life,” Franco explained, his Italian roots evident in every word. “I enjoy giving people a wonderful experience and unique cuisine, because I want them to come back. It makes me proud to have people travel from as far as Ocala to try it and love it.”
When visiting an Italian restaurant, it’s easy to be cliché and settle for sampling chicken Alfredo, spaghetti and anything parmigiana. But of the four dishes I tried, only two were a given: lasagna and oven-fired pizza; the latter was remixed uniquely enough to garner admiration from my judicious palate.
The Village BLT pizza came out piping hot and garnished with applewood-smoked bacon, red onions, diced Roma tomatoes and mozzarella. However, what made this pizza unusual was that it was topped with chopped romaine that had been tossed in creamy Caesar dressing and sprinkled with Romano cheese. The collaboration between cold salad and hot pizza was shockingly well-matched. Luckily, the heat didn’t wilt the lettuce; the romaine remained crisp and retained its deep flavor along with the dressing. It added welcomed complexity to an otherwise classic pie.
Francesco’s lasagna was comfort food in every sense. Made with homemade pasta, it was loaded with meat, cheeses and baked in a highly flavorful tomato sauce. The dish was homey and appealing, though just a tad more heat would have made it truly sing.
The signature seafood dish — salmon Cleopatra — delivered in both presentation and taste. The salmon was mild and flaky and the two large Gulf shrimp were cooked nicely. I was smitten with the seafood and sautéed capers and mushrooms dressed in a savory lemon-butter sauce and served atop authentic al dente angel hair pasta. I would return solely for this dish because it was so perfectly executed.
Another dish not to miss is the tagliatelle alle costolette. The pork ribs simmered in their special ragu sauce were quite tender, which made it easy to shred the meat from the bone and mix it with the ragu and ribbons of tagliatelle pasta, which are similar in shape to fettuccine. This dish was so multifaceted it took me a few spoonfuls to appreciate the rich, hearty flavors.
Villagers Annamay Miller and Rita Diette, who were enjoying a late lunch, raved over their pasta and sauce dishes.
“I’m from Boston and the North End is known as Little Italy, but I would have to say this was the best Bolognese I’ve ever had — and that’s saying something,” Rita said.
They complimented Franco and his hospitality, as well as the inexpensive lunch specials.
“The food here is so good and reasonably priced, which is nice when you compare it to the others restaurants in The Villages,” said Rita.
“It’s like our little secret, and I don’t want to let it out.”
16770 S. U.S. Highway 441,
Summerfield, FL 34491
Hours of Operation:
Monday–Saturday, 11a.m.–10p.m.; Sunday, 11a.m.–9p.m.
Spaghetti Bolognese: $11.50
Tagliatelle alle costolette: $14
Salmon Cleopatra: $14
Village BLT pizza: $10.50