Franco's Italian Bistro opened last fall in the Frederick Road location that had previously been Regions.

Regions was valiant but slightly complicated, with an ambitious globe-traveling menu of small and large plates. Franco's Italian Bistro is simple, straightforward and, from what I could tell, a big draw for the Catonsville community.


The owners here are first-time restaurateur Jim Furletti and his partners, Colleen and Greg Orendorff, who also own Gianni's Italian Bistro in Halethorpe. Before opening Gianni's, the Orendorffs ran Luigi Petti in Little Italy. They seem to be of one mind at Franco's: Serve good food cheerfully.

Franco's is a neighborhood Italian bistro that dishes up a coherent menu of classic Italian-American food. Here are your appetizers of sausage and peppers and fried calamari, your linguine with clam sauce, and your chicken piccata, veal saltimbocca and shrimp fra diavolo.

There are a few bonuses, amenities that make Franco's an especially inviting venue for casual, midweek dining. The first is pizza, which is baked in a free-standing oven just behind the L-shaped bar. There is something very appealing about this oven, with its striking black-brick front, in the way it adds both energy and tantalizing aroma to the atmosphere. Franco's just plain smells good.

The second is the bar, which appears to be a Catonsville oasis for couples and single diners who enjoy the camaraderie and bonhomie of dining alongside friends and neighbors.

We saw patrons, both in the dining room and at the bar, making a meal out of a shared pizza and maybe a salad or appetizer. Franco's offers 15 pizza preparations, most of them classics, but with little additions of quality ingredients that make a difference. The margherita, for instance, benefits from shaved pecorino, and the pizza verde from roasted asparagus.

But other diners, ourselves included, jumped deeper into Franco's menu, the arrangement of which is clear as can be, with sections devoted to appetizers, salads and soups, homemade pastas, seafood, and meat dishes. It takes no time at all for diners to settle into Franco's cozy, cheerful dining room and start making choices.

We never chose wrong. An appetizer of steamed mussels gave us healthy-looking mollusks in a simple wine, butter and garlic sauce. A refreshing cold seafood salad of chilled shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari was marinated in extra virgin olive oil, lemon and garlic and served on fresh and pretty greens.

We were cheered by a robust homemade meatball, made from pork, veal and beef, and served with Romano cheese and spicy marinara sauce. And we'd hope to see again, when we come back, a special appetizer we truly loved — panzerotti, which were three ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta and mozzarella cheese, fried and served with a robust pomodoro sauce.

After that, commit to splitting a pasta course. Franco's menu includes a section of mix-and-match pastas and sauces as well as a foursome of homemade ravioli dishes, filled with meats, cheeses and mushrooms. We wanted to taste the house Bolognese, a sauce we care deeply about, and ordered it with orecchiette, those little ear-shaped pasta, so we could divide it up more easily. Franco's Bolognese is an excellent version of the classic meat sauce that can reveal the heart of the chef. Does it taste like someone has used fresh herbs and patiently let the sauce simmer? Franco's does.

The chef at Franco's is the Orendorffs' son, Mark Orendorff, who started working in Luigi Petti's kitchen when he was 10. His cooking at Franco's is confident, and it's also modest. He's not trying to show off; he's just trying to make things the right way.

A chicken piccata was tender, with a rich and lemony sauce, served with pretty roasted vegetables. A seafood entree, shrimp and crab crema di pomodoro, offered firm and plump grilled shrimp, tossed gently with pasta and an aromatic mix of blue crab-infused marinara sauce. Woodsy mushrooms added flavor and texture to a well-tempered wine sauce in an entree of veal Marsala. The veal itself was a little tough, though.

Dessert options are limited, but try the parfait-style version of the classic tiramisu, which has the richness that comes from real mascarpone cheese and the pleasant jolt of tiramisu. And order up a cup of good, strong espresso while you're at it.

We had a hard time leaving Franco's. On the way out, we stopped to chat with some nice folks at the bar, who asked us, more than once, "Didn't you have a great time? Didn't you love it?"

"We did," we said. "We loved it."


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Franco's Italian Bistro

Rating: ¿¿¿1/2

Where: 803-805 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Contact: 410-788-0075, francosofcatonsville.com

Open: Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $3.99-$15.99; entrees $16.99-$23.99

Food: Traditional American-Italian food

Noise/TVs: Normal conversation is fine even when the dining room is full. There are two TVs in the bar area with their sound off.

Service: Very pleasant and accommodating.

Special diets: Gluten-free dough can be substituted for any pizza; gluten-free gnocchi is also available. The staff is trained to answer questions about ingredients.

Children: There is no children's menu, but reduced portions of some pasta dishes are available.

Parking: Parking is available on the lot at Frederick and Mellor streets after 5 p.m. On-street parking at meters is available during the day.