Radical Comfort Food in Brooklyn
"We created this place and this food because it's what we honestly want, not because we're trying to get other people to want it."
Prime Meats restaurant. © Simon Watson.
That irreverent, take-it-or-leave-it approach has worked for Frank Falcinelli and his co-chef and business partner, Frank Castronovo. Despite their avowed refusal to cater to popular tastes, their restaurants are now some of New York City's best hangouts. Their Brooklyn empire began with the Italian-American Frankies Spuntino (there's a second location in lower Manhattan, too) and recently expanded to a historically minded German-American spot, with an exceptional cocktail bar, called Prime Meats. They own two espresso shops, with a third on the way, and peddle their own brand of Sicilian olive oil.
The Franks opened Frankies in 2004, before Brooklyn had a thriving restaurant scene. Neither chef was a young hotshot; both were nearing their forties and had worked at fancy restaurants since their teens. Castronovo had apprenticed in France, including a stint at the revered Paul Bocuse; Falcinelli had cooked in Manhattan at Aureole and ran the very trendy 1990s restaurant-lounge Moomba. Frankies was their return to the Italian-American food of their childhoods in Queens, New York. "We'd call our grandparents asking, 'How'd you make that dish again?' " Castronovo says.
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© Simon Watson
Frankies is resolutely casual, and so are its owners. Both are extravagantly bearded, with long hair (Falcinelli recently trimmed his to run a marathon). Both almost always wear plaid shirts, never chef's whites. Occasionally, they close the place for the night and have a backyard bonfire—usually with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, a regular, spinning the records.
The vibe at Frankies may be super-casual, but the chefs brought their serious culinary training to bear on the menu. It's doubtful any Italian-American kitchen uses as much white pepper as theirs. They lightened everything—rule one was no fried foods. They don't mess with classics like spaghetti with garlic and juicy clams but do omit the raw eggs in a Caesar dressing in favor of jarred mayonnaise. Says Falcinelli, "Hellman's is like a drug." Because of a shared interest in healthy eating, they serve lots of raw salads, simply cooked vegetables and dishes that combine both, like a roasted-beet-and-avocado salad.
© Simon Watson
The decision to open Prime Meats was an unusual one; certainly New Yorkers weren't clamoring for German food. Still, Falcinelli and Castronovo were fascinated with the idea of honoring a forgotten part of New York's culinary history, the German barrooms and banquet halls of the late 1880s. Castronovo had spent six years cooking in Germany's Black Forest, and he'd perfected several dishes there, including sauerbraten—tangy-sweet beef brisket braised in red wine. The Franks roped in Castronovo's father-in-law, Rolf, a retired baker from Freiburg, to come to Prime Meats to teach them German baking. In German. His most enduring legacy: warm chewy-crispy pretzels. They're so good, the chefs use the leftover pretzels for their inspired take on German dumplings.
© Simon Watson
Prime meats' dining room is a triumph of historical re-creation, thanks to Falcinelli's nearly clinical obsession with the tiniest details of design. The rooms are filled with hand-carved wooden filigree; exterior walls are covered in a paint Falcinelli imported from Holland. He commissioned staff uniforms from Donna Zakowska, a costume designer for the HBO miniseries John Adams (where she worked with another Frankies regular, actor Paul Giamatti). "Donna knows the mathematics of period clothing from that era," explains Falcinelli. "You look at it, your eyes convey information about the measurements to your cerebral cortex, and your brain says, That's an old vest."
This spring, Artisan will publish The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, which I'm co-authoring. Like Frankies itself, the cookbook's name evokes the past, and its all-purpose culinary approach was inspired by an old carpenter's handbook. But it was designed by Travis Kauffman, who has worked with artist Lola Schnabel, and the recipes reflect the chefs' modern sensibility. In fact, the book is a perfect reflection of the Franks' philosophy of making the past the hippest part of the present.
Peter Meehan is co-author of The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, due out this spring.