LA GRANGE – As I was toying with what restaurant to try on my Mystery Diner visit, it didn’t take long to realize only Italian would do because frankly, no one does food like Italians.
This mission to find heartwarming, soul-lifting, whole-person-comforting Italian food during the cold, dark nights of late winter took me to Francesca’s Bellezza in downtown La Grange.
What I consider to be the traditional Italian restaurant exterior welcomed my companion and me as we approached our dinner venue. The restaurant’s name is written in pretty cursive, and a dark-colored awning runs across the length of the restaurant’s front facade. What we found when we entered was a cozy but trendy interior that is divided into a restaurant and bar area, creating a venue that is appropriate for an intimate date, friends’ night out or family meal.
As we took our seats in the restaurant area, we quickly were greeted by freshly baked bread, parmesan cheese and olive oil. The bread arrived warm and soft on the inside, with a crispy crust, and the plate of grated parmesan cheese was generous.
My companion warned me not to fill up on bread, but that is easier said than done when faced with the temptation of the salty goodness of parmesan cheese. Needless to say, I ate more than my share of the bread (sorry, companion), but no one should ever underestimate my appetite at an Italian restaurant. These places are made for overeating, and I’m sure I made Italian grandmas everywhere proud.
Following my philosophy of filling up on bread, my companion and I ordered the bruschette alla Romana as our appetizer. This was a tough call, as the quattro stagioni pizza looked like it would make an equally appetizing appetizer. I am a sucker for artichoke, one of the ingredients on the pizza, but never fear, I received my artichoke fix later in our meal.
We were not disappointed in our appetizer choice. While many of us could say we’ve had our share of bruschetta – as it is a staple when it comes to Italian restaurant fare – the bruschetta at Francesca’s Bellezza was nothing close to ordinary. It was the generous globs of fresh mozzarella that sold me, but everything else – the garlic toast, tomatoes, basil and oil – was on point too.
Next up were our entrees. This being a restaurant review, I thought it would be a good idea if one of us ordered a pasta, and the other ordered a meat dish, to make sure this piece had enough variety. We failed at that plan, so you are stuck with the review of two excellent pasta dishes.
That’s not to say the meat dishes weren’t tempting. The pollo alla Fiorentina sounded delicious, as did the tilapia al forno, but ultimately, it was the draw of the artichoke on the cavatelli mio modo that was too much for me to resist.
The dish featured homemade dumpling-style pasta sauteed in a light tomato basil sauce with artichokes and shiitake mushrooms. While goat cheese also was a listed ingredient, I asked for a substitute. Our waiter – who was friendly and professional throughout our visit – was very helpful in his suggestion of mozzarella. I welcomed the idea of more globs of the fresh cheese.
While the entire dish was wonderful and I loved the tang of artichokes strewn throughout, the sauce – or should I say, gravy – may have been my favorite part. So much rests on the gravy in any Italian dish, and this one had the perfect balance of sweet and savory.
My companion ordered the spaghetti dei Sardi, although he, too, toyed with a meat dish, the pollo arrosto alla Romana.
The spaghetti dei Sardi included spaghetti sauteed in a tomato sauce with Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, onions, herbs and parmesan cheese. When I asked him what he thought of the dish, all he could do was give me a thumbs-up, as his mouth was full, so I took that as a good sign and solid recommendation.
When it came time for dessert, we sadly were full, but visions of leftovers danced in our heads as our busboy filled what was left of our entrees into to-go containers. And just as Italian food never goes out of style, our meals were equally satisfying the second time around.
The Mystery Diner is a newsroom employee at Suburban Life Media. The diner’s identity is not revealed to the restaurant staff before or during the meal. Only positive dining experiences will result in published reviews.
If you go
What: Francesca’s Bellezza
Where: 75 S. La Grange Road, La Grange
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday
Info: miafrancesca.com; 708-579-3500