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Apr 11, 2007 07:22 AM

Great pasta in an Irvine food court - whodathunk?! (Review w/ PHOTOS)


Within a block of John Wayne Airport, inside one of Irvine's many banal food courts, you'll find Franco's Pasta Cucina -- the gleaming pearl in a sea of heat-lamp and chafing-dish mediocrity.

Acting on a tip whispered to me by fellow food blogger Deb of Dinner at Six, I found the man himself dressed crisply in chef's whites, presiding in a kitchen no larger than a prison cell.

With a booth plastered with glossies of the chef in younger days -- standing beside political dignitaries like Clinton and Kissinger and his arms around Hollywood luminaries like Stallone and NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz -- Franco is otherwise an unassuming gentleman within reach of his sixties, with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair.

Although his pedigree seems more apropos to establishments with wine-bottle candles and red-checkered tablecloths, during the office-park lunch rush that occurs every weekday, Franco performs in a one-man-show which can only be described as "magic by pasta."

Up his sleeves are unexpected things such as salmon, feta, and yellowtail, which he juggles with rigatoni, fettucine, linguine, and gnocchi. Tossed in a saute pan, and coaxed by his deft hand, these disparate ingredients coalesce into masterpieces worthy of a thousand Mario Batalis.

But at $8.00 for a pasta dish, salad, garlic bread, and soda, his creations are offered for a price that won't even cover valet parking at Mozza.

An instant favorite is the "linguine with clams in a light spicy clam sauce," where generous fistfuls of the chopped bivalve is folded into a buttery concentrate redolent of sweet garlic and dotted with freshly shorn Italian parsley. Perfectly cooked linguine is then added to the mix, tossed until every inch of the noodle is sluiced with flavors of the briny deep.

This wonderful pasta dish made me rejoice that stuck with us Irvinites in food court purgatory -- amongst gloppy orange chicken and limp pizzas -- is a world-class chef like Franco, who can magically transport us to Italy, if only just until he closes up shop at 2:00 pm.

Franco's Pasta Cucina
(949) 852-4699
2222 Michelson Dr Ste 206
Irvine, CA 92612


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  1. My office is across the street, and I had to try this place after reading your review since I'm always looking for a new place to go for lunch. I had the spicy yellowtail linguine, and it was definitely the best pasta dish I've had since getting back from my trip to Italy a couple months ago. And it was a good-sized plate of pasta too. Great deal for $8 (w/ salad, bread, and a soda). Only downside, you only get a little piece of garlic bread; I should have asked for more. I'll be going back again for sure. Thanks elmo

    5 Replies
    1. re: I got nothin

      Glad you liked it! Just a warning though, some people have told me that Franco's the Pasta equivalent of the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld.

      Here's a story a reader named Jane shared with me:

      "... someone asked for extra salad dressing. His response: "It doesn't need any extra" and he went back to cooking. Same for when someone else asked for extra cheese for their pasta."

      She goes on to add:

      "So for the people who have yet to eat at Franco's... when you get your food, just trust that Franco has cooked it to perfection (which he has!), don't ask for anything extra, and you won't have any problems."

      1. re: elmomonster

        Did you ever see the movie Big Night with Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci?

        Shaloub plays a great Italian chef whose customers want really ordinary food. His brother is Tucci, who worries about the business and wants Shaloub to do what the customers want. It's a good movie and your review reminded me of the film.

        1. re: PaulF

          No I haven't! But I must put it in my queue. Thanks!

        2. re: elmomonster

          Thanks for the warning. Maybe I'll just smuggle my own bread in next time to soak up the extra pasta sauce

          1. re: I got nothin

            The cashier seems a bit more approachable, so perhaps he's the one to ask for extras. But I am deathly afraid that going over Franco's head might incur even more of his wrath! Good luck! And good eating!


      2. does he only cater to the weekday crowd? i'd love to check in out on the weekend....

        1 Reply
        1. re: brekkie_fan

          Brekkie Fan,

          I just checked and unfortunately, his food can only be had during weekdays and only until 2pm.

        2. elmo,

          I went there for lunch today, and it was every bit as good as you said! My work is about 0.5 miles away, and we'd never ventured to this food court before. To be honest, I was looking for the Chicago's Best place, but when we walked into the food court I couldn't find it. But seeing the Franco's sign, I knew this was where we had to eat!

          The other restaurants in the food court were suprisingly boring - a teriyaki place, a Blimpie's sandwiches, a Thai and a Mexican place. Very suprising to me, was that the lines at the other places were a mile long, while Franco's didn't have any wait at all.

          I had the rigatoni and sausage, my friend had spaghetti and meatballs. Each cooked to order, and both were delicious! For my $8 I got a giant plate of rigatoni, two beautifully cooked Italian sausages, salad (just chopped iceberg with italian dressing), garlic bread and a soda w/ free refills. I had a taste of my friend's meatballs, and they were outstanding! They tasted home made and were so good.

          What a great deal for lunch. My friend even made a comment about how in the world the other people could be eating at the fairly plain other eating establishments in the food court, when Franco's is such a gem of a deal.

          Do you happen to know what restaurant Franco used to own? I mean, it's not like Kissinger, Clinton, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Suzanne Somers, Rich Schroeder, and the rest of the people in those pictures ate inside this very food court?

          2 Replies
          1. re: kingkong5

            Chicago's Best is on the other side of the freeway, on Main St, between Von Karman and Jamboree.

            I'll have to try Franco's sometime soon. I've worked in this business area for awhile now, but only recently found out about this food court when I was trying to find the Blimpie's earlier this year.

            1. re: kingkong5

              It's great ain't it? Glad you found it and more importantly, enjoyed it.

              The restaurant where I think Franco works at night is in Santa Monica. It's called Giorgio Baldi.


            2. Finally had a chance to try Franco's today. I was hoping to order lasagna, which is what I usually get to compare Italian places, but I didn't see it on the menu. I remembered Elmomonster writing his review about the linguine and clams, so I ordered that as a combo meal that included a tiny lettuce salad, bread roll sprinkled with garlic (no garlic bread as other reviews have mentioned), and a drink.

              I don't order linguine and clams often, as it tends to be a bit bland to me compared to dishes with tomato-based pastas, but it was really good here. The pasta was soft and tender, which I like and prefer, compared to other places which tend to undercook the linguine and ends up being chewier and tougher than what I like. I thought it was among the best I've had in recent memory, and I gobbled up every last bit clams and noodles. Large-sized portions, too.

              The salad was forgettable being a small cup of iceberg lettuce with a light dose of Italian dressing. No garlic bread anymore, but bread rolls with garlic and garnishes sprinkled on the outside. The bread roll was decent, but nothing special.

              I'm eager to try the lobster ravioli or one of the dishes with Italian sausages in the near future.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Wonginator

                I can't even remember the locations but when I was working down that way in the 90s, but --I had several favorite places in those "banal" food courts down in the business park districts!!! Who woulda thought! I only went to maybe 4 of those type food courts, but on a semi-regular basis.

                I haven't come across a similar food experience in the areas of LA county so far (mostly SGV, Glendale, Burbank for me since I moved), the variation within one food court of many mom and pop places for lunch, some good some bad most average. I can't remember if it was this location food court, but one had both a really good kabob place and a wonderful full scale Middle Eastern restaurant in the same food court, along with a really good Thai place with both cheap specials and great cooked to order meals, and another with above average Chinese food considering it was for a food court type spot.