Restaurant Reviews

The pizzas of summer

As a child, I was taught, almost every autumn, that Columbus proved once and for all that the world is round. Why is it only now that we're becoming aware that it's global? This would be one of those "duh" concepts, except that we use the word "global" not to mean "round," but to mean "accessible."

So, roundness aside, "global" music, and certainly "global" cuisine, wouldn't even be in the language if it weren't for modern technology, transportation, and communication.

What "global cuisine" and "global groceries" mean, besides nothing, is that we've lost the sense of time and place formerly associated with food. One world, one season, one menu. We get blueberries in February from New Zealand and peaches in January from Chile. Everyone knows what kiwi tastes like, and no one wishes strawberries were in season--they always are.

My kids' generation has no idea of seasonality. They've never had to wait till summertime for watermelon; they don't associate the crisp crunch of an apple with autumn.

Nevertheless, some flavors still do symbolize a season to most of us; I just wonder how long those associations will persevere. I can't really taste a watermelon without feeling a rush of summer or a pumpkin pie without imagining a nip in the air and the frost that the song says is supposed to be on the pumpkin. But will that continue to be true? How could it? (I know the next rhetorical question: Who cares?)

Seasonality is technically meaningless--even so, some of those Proustian associations, those taste memories that pair a flavor and smell with the season of the year, are unerasable. Basil is one. That sharp, licorice-sweet, nose-filling taste, verging on mintiness, is the absolute essence of summertime--no matter when you eat it. A whiff of basil warms you up; just a taste and you're ready to fantasize about red vine-ripened tomatoes (as if they weren't fiction now), no matter what time of year it is. You may actually forget what a nightmare summertime in Texas is.

We forgot for a moment lately when we ate lunch, a basil pizza, at Frantoni's on Henderson.

Frantoni's is a modest, casserole-Italian and pizza restaurant, a rare thing in Dallas (though not as rare as really good upscale Italian food), the kind of place of which there are a million in New York City. Which is where Frantoni's genial owner grew up and lived before he moved to Dallas.

And not long ago--he's still amazed, for instance, at the heat. "It never lets up," he says in perplexity. "Even at night, it never lets up." Sorta like traffic some places.

Most of Frantoni's menu is standard--thick, filling pastas are baked in red sauce under cheese. Manicotti means coarse pancake-like crepes around a snowy ricotta filling. Sausages are cooked with fat-absorbent potatoes and peppers--street food on a plate. Baked ziti swim in tomato-paste red sauce. ("Looks like penne to me," groused one dining friend who's interested in what I thought were meaningless distinctions until I read in the paper that a man killed his wife in a quarrel about overcooked ziti. Pasta is more important than you think.)

Subs and heros overflow with meatballs and sauce. A "Caesar" is not one at all; it's a chrysanthemum-petal arrangement of iceberg lettuce leaves, radiating out from a core of sliced tomatoes with a mayonnaise-thick cream-colored dressing spooned over. It's all good, substantial food, a little repetitious, hardly refined, but plentiful, inexpensive, and in the neighborhood. Just the thing for a hectic weeknight, a weekend home video fest, a lunch requiring the comfort factor. It was the pizzas, though, that kept my attention.

Service, when we ate lunch at Frantoni's, was good-willed and friendly. John's Pizza in the Village is famous for its strict "no slices" policy--a very New York attitude: we are not here to accommodate you, we are here to bake pizza for our own enjoyment. At Frantoni's, on the other hand, we ordered Sprites--being hot and thirsty in the middle of what should have been a fall day yet felt like Venus. "Sprite, OK." He wrote it down. We were seated at a little table, brought water and told, "Your Sprite will be here in a minute."

Sure enough, in about a minute, my companion saw one of the employees slipping in the back door with a six-pack of Sprite. Now that's service. Delivery, we found, was as fast as Domino's.

Anyway, about the pizza: it was crisp-crusted and thin, but not crackery, tough enough to support the toppings. As I said, my favorite version was "Frantoni's Special Pizza," with a layer of tart marinara under fresh mozzarella. I like the "personal" size, which is plenty for two for lunch, and therefore a deal for $6.95. The "white" pizza, with mozzarella and dollops of ricotta over a spread of marinara, was good, too, though misnamed. And the usual toppings are available as well.

My first thought as I took a bite of "Frantoni's Special Pizza," right at the end of the summer, was that I was tasting something that wouldn't last. This pizza is loaded with basil--over the cheese, under the cheese, tucked between the topping and the thin crisp crust. But I expect I'll be eating Frantoni's basil pizza and dreaming of summertime, all winter long.

Frantoni's Italian Cafe, 2820 Henderson Ave., 828-4707. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight.

Frantoni's Italian Cafe:
Frantoni's special pizza $6.95 (personal size)
Frantoni's white pizza $13.95 (Large)
Caesar salad $3.


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Mary Brown Malouf