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Let's Eat: 2001 Critic's Choice


6221 River Road
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30-11p.m.
Dinner entrees $12.25-$24.95
Reservations encouraged

A prominent occupant of the fashionable River Road shopping center, Azzurro is the quintessential West End restaurant. It's a well-managed place with a comfortable but decidedly stylish feel and a very good, if somewhat conservative, high-end Italian menu. The professional staff is knowledgeable and treats the clientele with measured respect without being servile.

The antipasti are a strong point. The kitchen has a knack for applying well-executed simple techniques to common ingredients to create exquisite results — a talent nicely showcased by a simple grilled-vegetable starter dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. On the casual side, Azzuro features brick-oven pizzas with gourmet toppings such as proscuitto, roasted onions, Gorgonzola and fresh mozzarella.

In traditional Italian style, the menu is divided between antipasti, pasta dishes and "secondi" meat dishes — only, unlike an Italian menu, there is no question that the pasta dishes are intended to be full meals. The pasta features simple but smart pairings like fresh tomatoes with radicchio and pancetta, and ravioli stuffed with porcini, spinach and ricotta. In keeping with Azzuro's reserved menu, the meat dishes are also on the conservative side, with options such as veal scaloppini, lamb chops with mint sauce, and a porterhouse with a brandy and peppercorn cream sauce.

Azzurro serves excellently prepared Italian fare. It may not push the envelope of culinary creativity, but it consistently gratifies. - B.I.R.

9031 W. Broad St.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m.
Average Entrée Price $18-26
Reservations accepted

Franco's Ristorante may look like just another nondescript strip-mall Italian place, but nothing could be further from the truth. Inside this comfortable, white tablecloth restaurant on West Broad, hushed diners enjoy some of Richmond's finest and most creative Italian fare. The kitchen takes bold and innovative liberties with traditional preparations to create a consistently excellent seasonal menu that flirts seamlessly between both the rustic and the more elegant traditions of Italian cuisine.

Franco's homemade pasta dishes are available as half-size prima piatti or full-size as entrees, and are a must for anyone with a passion for fresh pasta. If you are lucky enough to encounter a handmade ravioli dish on the menu, by all means pounce on it, you won't be disappointed. Look for elegant seafood and veal dishes that demonstrate the kitchen's art with flourish. Also keep an eye out for elaborate and well-conceived specials, such as Dover scallops with foie gras, caramelized apples and port wine.

Presentations are meticulous and the food arrives on oversize plates served by waiters who take their work seriously but aren't overly uptight. For dessert, the budino, a seemingly unassuming custard dish, is extraordinary and deserves special mention.

Franco's offers two menus: one in the casual cafe in front and another in the more formal (and pricey) dining room in back. With its great food and excellent service you're guaranteed to forget you're eating in a West End strip mall. - B.I.R.

501 S. Pine St.
Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30 - 11:00 p.m.
Reservations accepted only for parties of 6 or more

If chef-owner Ed Vasaio has a business plan, it probably reads something like this: Invest only in preparation of great Italian food; ignore everything else. With this mantra was born the grubby little eatery called Mamma 'Zu in the modest working-class neighborhood of Oregon Hill. Here, the staff is surly, the tabletops are sticky and the chalkboard menu is hard to read. But despite all of this, the line in front of Mamma 'Zu is invariably long because its kitchen serves an outstanding seasonal menu with bold flavors and traditional, no-nonsense combinations.

Representative appetizers include heaping piles of sautéed broccoli rabe or escarole drenched in rich olive oil and powerfully laced with garlic, and tender conch in a tangy dressing. Always available are excellent pastas with rich sauces such as Amatriciano or Gorgonzola; a fantastic rendition of eggplant parmigiana; and although it's hard to find on the chalkboard, a fine crispy white pizza. Look for entrees such as osso bucco, lamb chops, shad roe, sea bass and sweetbreads. The chalkboard isn't always descriptive but you needn't worry — this kitchen can be trusted.

Visit Mamma 'Zu with a large party and the kitchen will double your orders and serve them in huge bowls and giant platters for passing. The 'Zu is a culinary treasure and always a great eating experience, but steel yourself for its maddening eccentricities. — B.I.R.

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