EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Franco Mannino just can’t not own a restaurant. His pizza by the slice truck only satisfied his chefly urges for a short time before he had to jump back into a brick-and-mortar kitchen to start dishing up his favorite Sicilian recipes
It was when he was in Sicily earlier this year that he decided exactly what he needed to do.
“I’d been getting prepared to do another restaurant; I knew I wanted to do it,” he said. “Then (Eastland) Mall called me while I was in Italy and said ‘We have this building; do something with it.’”
The building in question was originally a Taco Bell, located just south of the mall on Green River Road. It was perfect for Mannino’s idea of a small place with good, simple, accessible Italian and Sicilian food.
“I didn’t want anything fancy or big but something local where you can get really good Italian food,” he said. “I wanted something I can just enjoy.”
At this point, Mannino, a veteran restaurateur, can organize and open a restaurant in his sleep, but he was fresh out of name ideas for this one. And he really didn’t want to call it “Franco’s.”
“My daughter Sophia told me, ‘Papa, you make a mistake if you don’t put your name on it,’” he said. “She said ‘People know you, and they’ll come when you open instead of two months later. I know what I’m talking about.’ So I did. It worked out.”
Yes, it worked.
Franco’s Tavola Calda Sicilian Food opened in November and has been extremely busy with Mannino’s many fans enjoying his pizza, pasta, calzones, lasagna, arancini, porchetta, panini, cannoli and more.
The words tavola calda mean “hot table” in Italian, and that is a perfect description for this kind of restaurant, which is very popular all over Italy. Most items are prepared and kept hot — or cold — in a case visible to the patrons and easily accessible to the cook. The food is ready to eat or can be whipped up in a matter of minutes.
“The tavola calda is where you can go in, and it’s there. And you can choose what you like,” said Mannino. “You have the pasta, the lasagna, the arancini (fried rice balls) ready to go. Today we made 15 stuffed pizzas, and they were so beautiful. And they all were gone at lunch.”
When you approach the counter at Franco’s Tavola Calda during the busiest hours, be prepared to see many dishes already composed and held hot. You may also customize your own dish from the ingredients on hand, in the fast-casual style.
One of the highlights is Mannino’s porchetta, a loin of pork rolled around a spiral of green herb filling and slowly baked. It’s used as a sandwich filling. We requested a low-carb meal, so Mannino topped slices of porchetta with a touch of tomato sauce, Alfredo sauce, spinach, green olives and Parmesan cheese, then popped it under the broiler until hot and bubbly. It was wonderful.
If you’re ordering pasta, four sauces are available. The smooth pomodoro tomato sauce is flavorful but not overly sweet. It contains a pinch of special Franco spices that enhance the sweetness of the tomato without adding sugar. The thick ragu is made with ground beef, a scattering of diced carrots and green peas a Sicilian-style sauce.
“The ragu is made with fresh ground beef; I love it,” said Franco. “I eat it every day. It’s a southern style, like a Sicilian Bolognese.”
The creamy Alfredo sauce is simply reduced cream, good Parmesan cheese, a little fresh garlic and a touch of nutmeg. Finally, fresh basil and garlic are ground with olive oil to make a pesto that may be combined with the cream sauce.
The pasta dishes are either prepared ahead or made to order with these sauces.
“That way people can order what they want,” said Mannino. “We have a lot of vegans and vegetarians that come in. If you want gluten-free we don’t have to put bread crumbs on the arancini, we just fry them like they are. We can make you what you need.”
Mannino’s garlic bread is a light and airy must-try. Feeling that garlic knot rolls weren’t the bread he wanted to offer in this new location, he’s making a flat bread using his light, moist pizza dough.
“I have a really good conveyor oven,” he said. “I used the pizza dough and put it in the oven, and it blew up into a totally round ball, with just air in the middle. It looks like a big loaf of bread, crunchy on the outside but there’s nothing inside.”
He’s topping it with a dab of garlic and herb oil and Parmesan cheese to accompany pasta dishes.
Salads can be ordered from the menu or customized to your taste. Don’t make the mistake of asking for ranch dressing, however.
“The dressing I do my way,” said Mannino. “No spices or nothing, it’s just lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. That’s all you need, and it’s the only dressing we have. You want ranch? We don’t have ranch. This is good for you.”
Tavola calda restaurants are usually open only for lunch in Italy, with evening service offering a more traditional sit-down menu. That is Mannino’s plan for this location as well, and it should be in place sometime in mid-January.
At that time, look for braciola beef rolls in the Southern style, with a filling of onion, pine nuts and raisins, served in a Marsala sauce.
Chicken Parmesan will be on the menu, as well as chicken or other meats served in Marsala or piccata sauces, salmon, a fresh catch of the day and escargot.
“I think restaurant food should be homemade and original,” said Mannino. “We don’t buy sauce; we buy the ingredients to make the sauce. Then we can make the dish the way you want it to be made.”