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When you take your first bite at Franco's Ristorante, be prepared for a culinary adventure you'll never forget.

Transcendent Tastes

Things are seldom black and white for me, and so it is a testament to the quality of Franco's Ristorante's fare that I can declare, without hesitation, my meal there to have been unequivocally excellent. It was one of those exceedingly rare gastronomic experiences where you find yourself grinning like a drunken idiot after the first bite of each new dish you try.

Franco's proprietors, Paolo and Rhona Randazzo, explain that their dishes synthesize cucina povera, traditional peasant fare, with cucina alto-borghese, the cuisine of the landed gentry and merchant class which embraces international culinary traditions. We can all credit their mother, Concetta Randazzo, for inculcating in them the culinary traditions of a small Sicilian town called Carini, and thereby unwittingly enriching Richmond's culinary assets.

Franco's is a strip-mall restaurant with a comfortable, dimly lit interior the details of which I barely noticed as I was instantly distracted by a small bowl of delicious marinated black olives that greeted me at my table, an auspicious beginning to an exciting culinary adventure. The next welcome distraction came in the form of a breadbasket that included foccacia heavy with fragrant olive oil and savory with herbs.

[image-1](Stacy Warner / adventure continued with two items from Franco's winter menu. The kitchen permits diners to sample most of their pasta dishes in appetizer size, an option we eagerly exercised with the Ravioli di Vitello ($18.95 entrée, $9.50 appetizer). This excellent handmade ravioli was filled with veal and mascarpone, a mildly sweet cream cheese, and sauced with demi-glace flavored with pancetta, an Italian salt cured bacon, and fresh sage. For something perhaps a little more cucina alto-borghese, we sampled Capesante al Foie Gras ($10.50) — which is the sort of elegant, high-priced, small-portioned dish that inspires unwarranted ridicule from those who measure value in calories per dollar. This miniature balancing act began with a slice of caramelized apple topped with two perfectly seared Dover scallops that were neatly adorned with slices of foie gras and drizzled with a port wine reduction. The harmony between the complex flavor of the foie gras and scallops is like a noble cousin to the common bacon-scallop pairing, and the sweetness of port wine and apple was a perfect foil for their rich flavors.

At this point in my meal, the incessantly churning mental list of work obligations faded from consciousness, and for the next two hours, time seemed to stop and the tabletop in front of me became the absolute center of the universe.

Nor did the entrees break this magical spell. From the specials menu we ordered a 10-ounce veal porterhouse ($26.95) whose incredible tenderness and sublime flavor had a frighteningly visceral effect on me. Sauced with an intensely rich demi-glace, this veal was served with perfectly prepared white asparagus, a mixed lentil dish and creamy whipped potatoes piped elegantly onto the plate. Outstanding. Also from the winter menu, we sampled the creative Pesce al Limoncello ($22.95), which was an unbelievably moist swordfish steak topped with a lemony sauce, capers and pistachios, and placed atop a nest of fresh squid-ink fettuccine which had that irresistible chew characteristic of perfectly cooked fresh fettuccine.

In the end, however, it was the simplest of desserts that most impressed me. The tiramisu ($5.50) was excellent, but the budino ($5.50) simply defied description. Although it is a seemingly unassuming and simple little custard, the moment this stuff hits your mouth it turns into something insanely good. All I can say is, you have to try

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