The first family of Italian dining in Pittsburgh is indisputably the Tambellinis. From the North Hills to the South Hills, you'll find the name attached to proprietors of a gamut of Italian restaurants, from white-linen tablecloths to checked-paper placemats. Even when the Tambellini name isn't above the door, it's likely to be in the kitchen.
And so it is at Franco's, in a storefront on busy West Liberty Avenue just this side of Mount Lebanon. The owner, Joe D'Amico, is the son of the eponymous Franco, himself a retired restaurateur, and Frances, a Tambellini. And sure enough, second cousin Joe Tambellini dons the toque in the back, preparing dishes with roots in both families, as well as in traditional Italian-American cooking.
The menu emphasizes pasta, veal and seafood, with a dozen or more options for each. Appetizers come hot or cold, and you'll do well if you like seafood and sausage. We both ended up getting the latter, Angelique's atop beans and greens and Jason's over polenta cakes.
His sausage had been flattened and charred on the grill, providing a great textural contrast with the firm polenta; fresh-tasting marinara supplied a bright note, making for a balanced dish that was as big as a dinner entrée. Atop a chunky version of beans and greens, fat, tender, braised hot sausage was a hearty complement to white beans, tender-crunchy pieces of escarole, tomatoes and shredded, melted cheese.
Alongside mix-and-match pasta-and-sauce combinations are a half-dozen specialties, the most intriguing of which is bowtie pasta with salmon in a tomato-cream sauce. The noodles were perfectly al dente, and chunks of tomato in the sauce offered bursts of bright, astringent flavor against the slightly creamy base. But while the bite-sized cubes of salmon were pleasingly firm, they had a strong fishy flavor that overwhelmed the other aspects of the dish.
Jason was perusing the meatier portions of the menu when our server told us of the Parmesan-crusted pork-chop special. We think he ordered it before she finished the word "chop." It turned out to be a great call. The chop was thick, beautifully medium rare as ordered, and moist. Grill marks on the bottom emphasized the benefits of fire, while a broiler-crisp coating of Parmesan cheese on top provided a strong, but not overwhelming, nutty flavor. The accompanying gnocchi, not made in-house, were sadly gummy, but the side order of mashed potatoes was spectacularly smooth and buttery.
Angelique could not resist another special dish, one of her favorites, lobster ravioli. Unfortunately, the moistness of the filling was not up to her standards, and the ravioli seemed less like delicacies in and of themselves than a substrate for the enormous shrimp and scallops which accompanied them. The scallops, especially, were superb, succulent inside and crisped on the outside.
We found much to enjoy in our visit to Franco's: a well-considered menu, a neighborhoody but not wholly informal atmosphere, and excellent appetizers. After the first course cleared, however, none of our dishes was an unqualified success. With an impeccable pedigree and a core of sound dishes, Franco's may be able to achieve more.