David Hammond

Before ordering dinner at Francesca’s Fiore in Forest Park last week, I chatted with Jodie, the nice lady at the host station. Jodie casually mentioned that at all the Francesca’s restaurants – which are now celebrating their 25th anniversary – you can have the kitchen prepare whatever meal you want, whether or not it’s on the menu. You’ve heard about secret menus; this is more of a TBD menu, and you’re the decider. 

Jodie explained, “If they have the ingredients in the kitchen, they can prepare whatever you want.”

In other words, if the ingredients are in stock because they’re included in dishes on the regular menu, you can have the people in the Francesca’s kitchens mash up those ingredients in whichever way you want. Kind of like your own personalized off-menu item, which at first sounded kind of cool.

“People like to have food their way. It makes them feel special,” said Jodie.  Always having wanted to feel special, I decided to take the plunge. I ordered the ravioli with asparagus in cream sauce AND marinara sauce. Woo, hoo, I was wild, out of control; felt a little like Danny DeVito in “Get Shorty” when he makes the server put in some complicated order for a dish that wasn’t on the menu…and then leaves before it arrives. Except…I stayed.

Now I could have, and maybe should have, gone off the deep-end and ordered a caprese salad with mussels in mushroom sauce or a pizza topped with fried calamari in a vinaigrette, but I didn’t. Probably a good thing.

The question: are you sure you want it your way? Fooditor editor Mike Gebert commented in response to the Instragram post of my two-sauced ravioli, “I hate that. I want the chef’s advice on what to eat, not my own.”

I agree with Gebert’s opinion to a point, but this is an era of customization. People want to feel not just that they’re special but that they can get drink and food however they want it. Coke Freestyle machines let consumers make whatever whacky combination of Coca-Cola-owned beverages they choose. Places like Olive Theory Pizzeria in Oak Brook allow extensive customization of your meal, boasting their pies are “Made One Way: Your Way.” At this pizza place, however, it isn’t hard to dream up some likely inedible combinations, like, say, an olive/pineapple/chicken pizza or a BBQ sauce/feta/pepperoni sandwich. The combinations are endless, and some are good but some would be terrible.

At Francesca’s Fiore, my dining companion, Steve Gevinson, ordered veal off the regular menu. It looked great: not medallions but rather thick hunks, nicely caramelized on the outside, just a little red on the inside, tender and flavorful. He gave me some. Exceptional.

And my customized dish? It was okay. Maybe I should just have had it the way the kitchen conceptualized it. Or maybe you should only have your dish customized if you know what you’re doing. 

For many, being able to ask the kitchen to make exactly what you want can be a huge plus. When Carolyn and I were at Olive Theory, a bunch of guys from a local tech store were chowing down. They had a special item, made just for them, which the manager told me they ordered every night. It was a sandwich with something like five different kinds of meat, hold the vegetables. It’s what they liked. Good for them. The menu at Olive Theory warns “Caution: Build at Your Own Risk.” Solid advice.

For me, next time at Francesca’s Fiore, make mine veal. Just the way it’s described on the menu.

Join the discussion on social media!

David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...