LAKE FOREST/NORTHBROOK — Francesca’s Restaurant Group has provided Chicagoland with traditional Italian fare for 25 years along with the variety accompanying its rotating monthly menu.
There will always be pasta, pizza and salad staples, but a diner looking for a fish or chicken dish from a recipe crafted by corporate chef Massimo Salatino can order that as well.
“We change our menu monthly,” said Salatino. “We listen to what our customers want, and there are new ideas I get.”
With 23 restaurants and all but four in the Chicago area, North Shore residents have a choice of selecting Francesca’s Intimo in Lake Forest or Francesca’s North near downtown Northbrook with the same menu choices in both spots.
Salatino said he does like to come up with new dishes or variations on existing themes to keep the diners’ choice fresh. He also considers the customer feedback he receives and the traditions started by founder and owner Scott Harris in 1992.
“Nothing will reinvent the wheel,” said Salatino. “I love to see pictures of food. If I see something in a magazine that looks colorful and I think the customers will like, I make it. I keep it interesting with a few great ingredients.”
Though the new introductions have to do with what is both in season and what is available, Salatino said he keeps the basic, simple philosophy of Italian cooking in mind at all times.
“I’ll take a great sea bass from the Mediterranean and add extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh lemon juice,” said Salatino. “Then I can either oven bake it or pan sear it.”
Along with continually adding new selections and removing others, Salatino said he has his favorite staples. Items that may get tweaked but will never go away include Pollo Arrosto alla Romana—roasted half chicken with shallots, rosemary, garlic, lemon and olive oil—and Salmone alla Fresca—salmon with avocado, tomatoes, red onions, olive oil, basil and lemon over asparagus.
Other staples include appetizers such as fried calamari and capriccio, as well as salads, basic pizzas and a build-your-own pizza selection.
Chicken and fish are always on the menu with variations created by Salatino. For those who want beef, Joe Taylor, the company’s director of operations with direct responsibility for both the Lake Forest and Northbrook restaurants, said there is always something available, though customers may have to ask.
Keeping the diners happy is also a function of continual training both by managers and the experienced servers passing on their knowledge to their newer colleagues, according to Taylor.
“We have the same common theme we had when we started 25 years ago when we started on north Clark Street (in Chicago),” said Taylor. “We have people who have been with us 17, 18, 20 and 25 years.”
Part of that training is taking the time to taste the food and learn how to pair wine with different dishes. Taylor said more experienced staff members can make recommendations to customers from personal experience. They know how to ask the right questions to enhance the dining experience.
“The experienced servers work with the less experienced ones to help them get better,” said Taylor.
As for tasting food to make sure it is just right for the customer, Salatino said people at Francesca’s do that every day.
Francesca’s is located at 293 East Illinois Road in Lake Forest and 1145 Church Street in Northbrook. For more information call 847-735-9235 for Lake Forest, 847-559-0260 for Northbrook or click http://www.miafrancesca.com/.