200402FRANCHESCOS

Beth Webb, a member of The Gazette's restaurant review team The Four Dishes, ordered this shrimp De Jonghe entree during a recent trip to Franchesco's Italian restaurant in Rockford, Ill. The dish, invented at De Jonghe’s Restaurant in Chicago about 100 years ago, consists of jumbo shrimp in garlic bread crumbs with herbs and spices.

Editor’s note: Though consistency might wane in the coming weeks because of the spread of COVID-19, Kicks will continue to provide restaurant reviews when possible with the understanding many establishments remain capable of providing food on a carryout or delivery basis.

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS

When it’s good, it’s good ... everything about it.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we enjoyed an outstanding meal at Rockford’s classic Italian ristorante, Franchesco’s. And over the last 34 years, this restaurant has just gotten better and better.

The eatery has a truly beautiful main dining room, which happened to be booked for a private party the night we visited. We peeked in at the enormous space with round, tufted booths, a contemporary gas fireplace with an unusual water feature and a baby grand piano in the center.

When it came our time to be seated, we were led to an attractive overflow dining area. Beautifully dressed tables featured black cloth tablecloths and napkins. Shimmering silver drapes covered the floor-to-ceiling windows, and lovely speckled-glass wall sconces provided intimate lighting. As we perused the menu, classic Frank Sinatra tunes were our background entertainment.

Sitting in that cozy, crowded back room, it was hard not to imagine being in a busy New York restaurant.

For drinks, Helene ordered a glass of Coppola claret ($10), and Jennifer tried the ‘Ol Razzle Dazzle cocktail ($12). Jennifer’s drink, made with Belvedere vodka, lime juice, raspberry puree and lemon juice, was refreshingly fruity. The taste reminded her of a drink she had on the beaches of Key West, Florida.

We started our meal with complimentary bread and olive oil for dipping and added the mushroom trio ($12) as an appetizer. Each of the three mushrooms—large enough to cut into quarters—was stuffed with different toppings. The Gorgonzola and olive were the immediate favorite with a pronounced cheese flavor and the saltiness of kalamata olives. The savory sausage filling was excellent, as was the chicken and tangy, marinated artichokes.

I decided to break tradition and order something other than my favorite eggplant Siciliana, so I went with the shrimp De Jonghe that was specially priced for Lent ($19). It is a dish invented at De Jonghe’s Restaurant in Chicago about 100 years ago and consists of beautiful jumbo shrimp in garlic bread crumbs with flavorful herbs and spices. The sweet addition of sherry put the taste over the top.

The dish also was served bubbling hot with a side of fresh linguine aglio e olio (olive oil and garlic). And my side Caesar salad ($3), which came with charred lemon and cherry tomatoes, wasn’t overdressed.

Helene splurged and ordered the grilled lamb chops ($37), and she was quite pleased with her dish. The three chops looked like lollipops because they were French-cut, so there was a good portion of lamb attached to the long shank of the bone.

The meat was cooked perfectly, so it was tender, flavorful and delicious. Accompanying the lollipops were tender, roasted Brussels sprouts and an exquisite risotto that tasted of a mild blue cheese or perhaps Parmesan. Either way, it was fabulous with all three items melding well with each other while offering different flavors and textures.

Nikki ordered the baked mostaccioli ($14), adding two meatballs ($4) for good measure. She also wanted to try a cup of the bookbinder soup, although our server warned her it would be a lot of food.

He was right, but we each helped out by taking a spoonful. The delicious tomato-based soup featured small diced vegetables, chunks of seafood and a shot of sherry served on the side and mixed in right before eating. Her entree was saucy and cheesy with big meatballs that were soft and tender. She made a dent but went home with at least one more meal’s worth of the hearty dish.

Jennifer chose Kim’s cod as her entree. Regularly $27, it was on special for $21 for Lent.

A beautiful, fresh Icelandic cod filet arrived moist and delicately flaky. What set this dish apart from the rest? For Jennifer, it was the aromatic, earthy, exotic mushroom blend along with the heirloom cherry tomatoes encompassing the fish. Jennifer could eat mushrooms all day, every day, and she said these were some of the best she has ever had.

She also couldn’t say enough about the truffle mushroom risotto that came with her meal. Velvety in texture, the risotto tasted rich and woodsy. Buttery with just the right amount of garlic, it was truly satisfying.

If you have room after your meal, don’t overlook the desserts, which are made in-house. We chose the crème brulee ($6), of course, and found it to be everything we were looking for—from the crackling sound of its brown sugar topping to the sublime filling. We also ordered the toasted almond cake ($8), which was delicious albeit much sweeter than the crème brulee. Still, it was well worth the extra calories.

Franchesco’s website now states “for the duration of this period, we will be offering a new pickup and free delivery menu that is now available.” Trust us. It is worth the drive.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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