expanding upon his success at Italianissimo, a chef/owner introduces a Spanish eatery to West Brighton
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos BY Alex Barreto
After 22 years of crafting authentic Italian cuisine at Italianissimo in South Beach, Franco Ortega decided to make a change.
“Italianissimo is my dream…the center of my heart,” the chef said with a smile. “But for years people have been asking me if I’d ever expand and explore another style of cooking, so I decided it was time to do something a little different.”
So, with Italianissimo in the capable hands of a veteran staff, Ortega ventured out, found a new location, and devised a Spanish-inspired menu. The result is Casa Franco, an eatery that merges South American cooking with Latin American flavors, launched in West Brighton this past June.
The space, which formerly housed Randazzo’s Clam Bar (and four other restaurants prior), was completely overhauled.
“We renovated the space, put in a new kitchen, and changed the dining room,” Ortega said, describing the new dark walls and lantern sconces. “It now has a Spanish look to it, which is exactly what we were trying to achieve.”
Ortega did significant research before the launch, including a 10-day trip to Spain that involved exploring several kitchens in Barcelona.
“I contacted several of my chef friends before I left, and they allowed me to come into their restaurants and kitchens to observe their work,” Ortega said. “That trip really inspired the menu at Casa Franco.”
Based on the cuisine of the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, the fare includes tapas and traditional Spanish entrees like paella, churrasco steak, and roasted pig, as well as other Latin influences (guacamole and ceviche, to name a few). Fresh empanadas are made by hand (their dough rolled on a special slab of marble), and crispy fried plantain chips are served in place of bread.
“Italian and Spanish cuisine is so similar,” the owner said. “The variation is in the ingredients—more saffron and paprika, less garlic and oregano, but both here and at Italianissimo, there’s a lot of sangria [laughs].”
At both locations Ortega picks all of his own proteins and produce, searching the market for whatever is freshest. The self-taught chef then spends about 12 hours daily in the kitchens of the restaurants, working to insure the consistency of each and every dish.
“Unfortunately in this business, there’s long hours and no holidays,” he said. “But I love what I do, and there’s no place I’d rather be.”
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