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“I always wanted a place where I could go a couple of times a week and have a good plate of pasta,” Franco Raicovich tells us.

From where we’re sitting – across the table from Franco at Fuzi Pasta, which he opened in Fresh Meadows, in eastern Queens, in the summer of 2023 – we might be at any number of casual Italian restaurants. Tables for two, singly or pushed together for larger parties, line a banquette. The walls are hung with charming portraits of diners, most of them attractive women or cute children, wrangling spaghetti. We hear Sinatra in the background, but also 1960s soul and 1970s pop and rock.

The menu seems largely Italian, too, except for a couple of items, most notably the namesake of Franco’s restaurant.

Franco, 62, lives in Woodside, a Queens neighborhood where, today, the best-known eateries feature food from the Philippines and South Asia. But in the Woodside where Franco grew up, a half-century ago, Sundays meant visiting his father’s parents, Nonno Bepe and Nonna Angela, and helping to fold the fuzi.

This bow-shaped pasta, which cradles sauces such as Nonna Angela’s salsa oro – “the golden,” Franco calls it – is beloved in Istria, a peninsula that extends into the Adriatic Sea. Franco tells us that his father was born there “under the Italian flag.” Later, Istria would become part of Yugoslavia; today, after that country’s dissolution, most of the peninsula lies within Croatia.

Franco’s mother is Piedmontese, from northwest Italy, and Italian was the household language when he was growing up. “My nanny was Cuban,” Franco adds, so he speaks Spanish as well – a useful skill for many New York restaurant owners in communicating with their kitchen staff.

Franco played American football in high school, and then in college at Cornell, in upstate New York, where he studied sports journalism. It wasn’t for him, and he left after two years (but he did keep up close friendships with two classmates who became his business partners at Fuzi Pasta). Meanwhile, his parents had moved from Woodside to Westchester, a suburban county just north of New York City, and Franco began taking culinary courses at Westchester Community College.

Although Franco already had some familiarity with restaurant life – his father owned Capriccio, an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, which he founded in 1971 – a deeper dive was in order. Franco sojourned in Italy for three years, working in Italian restaurants in Rome, Florence, Pisa, Lucca and Milan, before returning to the States “with a suitcase full of books.” Practical cookbooks, he clarifies, not food memoirs or travelogues – “I was in a scientific mode of learning.”

Franco worked at a series of restaurants, most of them in or near New York. (Perhaps we crossed paths 15 years ago in Astoria, when he was the executive chef at Piccolo Venezia. That restaurant’s namesake city is not far from Istria, where the owner and Franco’s father were school friends.) Franco married and had three kids. Today the kids are grown – he has three grandkids, too – and he lives once again in Woodside.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, his thoughts had returned to that “little pasta joint with six or eight seats” he’d always wanted. Originally the restaurant was to be very small, and focused on takeout, but then a larger space presented itself. Franco believes it was intended to be some sort of lounge – the banquettes had already been installed – whose business plan became untenable in light of Covid. The shared parking lot, behind the restaurant, was an added enticement. Fuzi is not at all convenient to mass transit; in this part of Queens, everyone drives.

Franco did keep in mind, however, that a larger restaurant brings greater challenges. Dishes would need a little more time to travel from kitchen to table, and so would Franco, who soon hired someone to run the front of the house. But in allegiance to his restaurant’s homey, family-friendly atmosphere, Franco is in and out of the dining room all the time. Before Fuzi, Franco tells us, he “never interacted so much with customers.”

“My intent never was to be a Croatian restaurant,” he adds. While much of his early press coverage has lingered over the distinctiveness of fuzi, Franco has fostered a more broadly “veggie forward” pasta restaurant with a focus on local suppliers. They include Hell’s Gate Farms and Alps Provisions, of Astoria; Mushroom Queens, of Forest Hills; Uncle Edik’s Pickles, a short walk away in Fresh Meadows; and Spatola Mozzarella Factory, up in the Bronx.

And while Fuzi’s wines by the carafe wear Italian names, the beers each boast a Queens pedigree.  The current menu includes Finback, brewed in Glendale; Singlecut, in Astoria; and Alewife, in Sunnyside.

When it’s time to eat, we, too, can’t pass up the temptation of the fuzi with salsa oro, prepared to Nonna Angela’s recipe and topped with lamb, beef and sausage. A variation on the menu, featuring vegetables and porcini mushrooms, was developed by Franco; his nonna “did not make a veggie version,” he assures us. We don’t doubt that it’s delicious, but we couldn’t resist the original.

On the side: blitva, which pairs potatoes and Swiss chard. It’s a combination that would seem humdrum if not for the traditional, welcome, intervention of a little garlic and ample olive oil.

We haven’t yet ordered dessert at Franco’s restaurant. Our sights are set on palačinke, crepes that so far have appeared only as a special, rolled around Concord grape jam. On one visit, however, we did enjoy twin biscotti presented in a small hammered copper cup. Complimentary offerings such as this, or a small bowl of lobster bisque – not to mention the bread rounds and red sauce that seem to introduce every meal – give Franco more reasons to step out of the kitchen and check in on his guests.

Our most comforting meal at Fuzi Pasta might seem prosaic: a lunch-special spaghetti-and-meatballs, with soup or green salad to start. (We got the salad.) From the lineup of sauces we chose the arrabbiata, a red sauce literally made “angry” by cooking the tomatoes with garlic and chili peppers in olive oil. It’s reminiscent of a red sauce we enjoyed at a restaurant long, long ago; perhaps our own grandparents were at the table. It reminds us, too, that a good plate of pasta can do wonders for the spirits.

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Dave Cook

Published on February 02, 2024

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