Surely basement restaurants have to try a bit harder than eateries that can offer windows to a welcoming, warm, bustling room – something you might especially associate with an Italian.

We must have walked past Franco’s a hundred times and it’s never registered; not until recently, anyway, when we made a mental note to seek it out one lunchtime.

Franco’s doesn’t even have its name above the door. It has Bar Italia written across one window and Ristorante Italiano across the other. Above is a bookies. Down a few steps a door is closed – is it even open?

There’s two ways of looking at this: a dated approach to publicity – or a confidence in reputation and ability. Inside we’re immediately transported either to Italy, or to Italian dining, 80s-style.

Inside is a long dining area that’s rather cosy and dark. Bar Italia (or Franco’s if you prefer) has something of a lived-in charm; you could kinda believe you were in someone’s house. It feels… rather dated. Not retro, just rather mature. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The service too seems rather… senior. The same waiter serves us throughout our lengthy lunch and seems in no rush at any point, thought he is perfectly polite and attentive.

There are already breadsticks on the table and we get a few chunks of good bread ad butter while we’re perusing the menu. And it looks promising. There are no pizzas, though there are quite a few pasta dishes. The majority look like authentic, hearty meat and fish dishes. There’s a heck of a wine list too, but we stick to diet coke and orange juice.

There was no lunch menu evident when we went (around 1.30pm on a Monday), nor were any meal deals for midday punters. Instead there are starter and main meal portions of the same dishes, so if you want a light bite you simply choose a smaller version of whatever takes your fancy.

And quite a few do. There are loads of seafood dishes – the seafood pancake was on our radar for a while. So too were chicken livers and the pork ribs. And, while dishes like avocado and prawns on with lettuce and marie rose sauce sound rather time warp, with the right ingredients they should be very good. Veggies are also well catered for.

In the end we went for a hearty Cannelloni alla Romana – pasta stuffed with meat, béchamel and spinach. It was meaty, a little spicy and very filling – which it needed to be at £9.95, pretty much the standard price for all the pasta dishes at Franco’s (starter portions are a couple of quid less). Our dining partner has a carbonara, which is much the same.

A dessert menu follows, and while we’re prepared to be wrong the sweets have the hallmarks of being bought in. Our partner, a client, fancies one, so what the hell. When in Rome and all that. We have a chocolate fudge cake and a remarkable hollowed orange filled with a tangy orange sorbet; the latter has two cylindrical tuiles stuck in the top of the sorbet so they resemble the antennae on an ant’s head. The desserts are not cheap at £6.95 but they’re pretty good. A coffee rounds off the meal, and is presented with biscotti, mints and physalis.

All told the bill comes to almost £40, which is not cheap for a lunchtime meal. But at a second meal with the same partner later that day at Delifonseca, quite late, we could only pick at a salad, so replete were we.

Set against the ‘lightning lunch’ deals that litter the business district area, you can expect to get not-dissimilar food for half the price elsewhere. But, then again, Franco’s gives the impression that the concept of arriving, ordering, eating and leaving in 60 minutes flat would draw just a puzzled look and shake of the head.

For a leisurely, relaxed lunch Franco’s is very good, especially if you’re not planning on eating for the rest of the day. With its decor, ambiance and general feeling of the world outside stopped for an hour and a half, there’s something slightly Twin Peaks about the place.

With San Carlo opposite, The Olive Press nearby and 62 Castle Street offering quick eats (we initially went in, failed to find anyone for fully five minutes at lunch time and left) nearby, you’d think Franco’s – or Bar Italia, or whatever it’s called – would be working hard to raise its profile and join the tenner-a-head 60-minute deals.

But no, this little corner of Italy feels authentically unmoved by the modern ways of Castle Street: buses and the Sainsburys dinner rush next door. Down a few steps on Castle Street is good food and a sleepy vibe – just knowing it’s there is rather comforting.

Franco’s
48a Castle Street

  • Will Adams

    Spot on review. I’ve always had a soft spot for Franco’s, right down to the crab sticks you get in the seafood pasta and the slightly 80s vibe.

  • http://vindalooqueen.blogspot.com/ Vindaloo Queen

    I’m desperate to go here! Looks like the perfect place to fill the buca di bacco shaped hole in my heart!