When your plate is ready at Franco's Pasta Cucina, chef Gloria Mogollón doesn't call out your order number, even though her cashier issued you one just minutes earlier. She'll call out your dish by name—"Spaghetti with meatballs!" "Chicken Parmesan!" "Linguini pesto!"—above the din of the Palm Cafe Food Court in Irvine where her stall stands, confident your ears will perk for her dulcet tone that has the authority of a nonna who has just slaved over a pot. And even if multiple people ordered the same dish, her voice is such that it speaks to you and only you, so that only you get up when it's your time to feast upon the best food-court Italian in the county. She'll hand you your plate, seconds removed from the skillet, quickly thank you, and move on to the next customer—it's a food court after all, not Tuscany.
Franco's was legendary even before Mogollón—a native of Colombia—took over the kitchen a couple of years ago. Opened in 1995, original chef Franco quickly impressed with made-to-order Southern Italian dishes that made life wonderful for Irvine's office drones long before the luxe lonchera craze saved their lunchtimes. Ordering was preposterously easy—pictures showed what was available, and a dry-erase board announced any specials. It opened at 10 in the morning, closed at 2:30 in the afternoon, wasn't open on weekends, and that was that. But Franco decided to retire to Italy a couple of years back, and the beautiful Mogollón—who looks more like a Univisión news anchor than the tough cookie she is—took over, keeping the menu, adding new dishes and tweaking according to customers' tastes. Take the beef Burgundy, a dish well-suited for places where the average age of the customer is 56; here, Mogollón updates the classic for the millennials with heavier dashes of wine and a better simmering process—all in a kitchen that can fit on the flatbed of a Ford 250.
Don't be fooled by the no-frills atmosphere, where dishes bear blunt names such as "seashells with sausage" (a fabulously cheesy mix of conchiglie and spicy sausage) or "penne broccoli"—the nuances and flairs Mogollón puts on everything, from an elegantly shaped Styrofoam bowl that holds her complimentary salad to the airy tiramisu that's free every Tuesday, show the work of a woman who deserves a better place than this. In the meanwhile, she's happy to prepare massive combo lunches (free drink and gargantuan slice of garlic bread) for all who swing by—quickly, of course, but oh, so wonderfully.
Franco's Pasta Cucina, 2222 Michelson Dr., Irvine, (949) 852-4699.
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This review appeared in print as "Food-Court Italian Done Right."