Lil' Frankie's Pizza


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Not too long ago I met a couple who'd recently moved to New York. They said they were surprised to be having trouble finding decent pizza. It took me a while to figure out what in the world they were talking about, because this couple was not from Italy. They were from California. Interrogation revealed that they had not suffered brain damage, but rather were undergoing a crisis of expectation. They'd developed since childhood a relationship with that gummy "deep-dish" stuff?no doubt with such toppings as sun-dried tomatoes and sliced pineapple?and that's what they sought.


I stemmed the reflexive outpouring of pity as best I could. To a Neapolitan, after all, the fruit of New York's standard metal ovens, canned sauce and factory cheese that congeals on display might seem an odd thing to call pizza. A New Yorker reporting that he couldn't find a proper slice in Southern Italy?well, I wouldn't sympathize, but I'd understand (unless the New Yorker in question was a food critic like GQ's Alan Richman, who confessed last year that he failed to achieve pizza satisfaction in Naples). The point is that people forge deep, personal bonds with what they know as pizza. The strength of connection is not effectively diminished by packaged ingredients or even absurd depths of dish, so long as such details remain constant.


You could probably do a Skinner Box-type experiment with an isolated village. Set up a friendly, corner parlor where residents can get greasy toasted white bread with some hot Ragu on it (or have it delivered) any day of the week. When the children are grown and allowed to relocate, they'll experience crisis of pizza expectation even in California, where they'd be able get practically the same thing they're used to.


Something a bit like the Skinner Pizza Box Experiment actually transpired in New Haven, CT. But, again, I don't want to slag anyone else's pizza. What I want to show is that pizza's power resides in its reliability?so much so that 10 people might cherish the same sustenance, provided with the same unvarying consistency, by 10 wildly divergent conceptions of pizza. Maybe it's because bread and tomatoes are both foods of maternal resonance. Even the stereotypical pizzeria proprietor, though male, is maternal. He's there for you unconditionally. And what he offers can't be replaced.


Lil' Frankie wants to be one of those moms in Italian-chef drag. It's signaled on the cover of the takeout menu, where the restaurant's namesake is pictured, clutching a baseball and a tiny bat, a roly-poly few weeks old. In capital letters at the bottom of the page are the words, "Brought to you by Frank Restaurant." It's impossible to imagine that the people who ran the best inexpensive eatery in the so-called neighborhood aren't aware of the daunting impediments to true neighborhood-ness that exist there. That Lil' Frankie's Pizza tries anyway, addressing those impediments with forthright generosity and wisdom, makes it the most heroic new restaurant the East Village has ever seen.


They're aiming for the destination-spot quality of 71 Clinton Fresh Food plus the landmark status and prices of Leshko's. Before I take a measuring stick to their pizza, let me proclaim that Frankie's gets there. There is no more a perfect pizza than there is a perfect mom, but it must be acknowledged that the starting point for such a comparison is rather lofty for these parts. East Villagers should weep with gratitude for the arrival of the domed-brick womb that births five-dollar Italian lunches. Who else around wants to take such loving care of them, every single day? The menu even invites patrons to linger during days or after midnight, promising, "?we'll leave you alone (We really will!)."


The front room is a lot like Frank: tight, warmly atmospheric with family photos, an antipasti display and effluent waves of aroma from that mighty oven. In back is a more spacious dining room, with exposed wood beams and large windows looking out to a garden. One more time, before I criticize anything, I have to praise Frank's owners for investing their profits this way. The dining room is on par with certain downtown places where you'd be harassed for not running up a big tab and departing after 20 minutes, never mind lingering for hours over a $3.25 lunch pie.


It'd been my feeling that Frank's peak had passed. The canary in the coal mine seemed to be the penne with tomato sauce, the restaurant's simplest dish. One recent visit found it spiked with parmesan, as if to make up for weak tomatoes. That fed suspicion that more elaborate Frank favorites were slipping. The amazing thing about the place was always the quality of (and care taken with) fresh ingredients. Now I wonder if the issue wasn't this spinoff, then in the process of starting up. Or, considering Frankie's pizza, it could have been an intentional adjustment in flavor. Italian-American food is usually cheesier than its old-country cousin.


The brick-oven pies at Lil' Frankie's are in the same league as those of Grimaldi's and Lombardi's. But to give the newcomer the decisive edge over Little Italy's and west Brooklyn's champs, you'd have to love cheese more than sauce. And maybe even over toppings. The mushrooms in the pizza funghi and the baby meatballs in the pizza polpettine (both $7.95 for a 12-inch) are boldly flavored. The former also has fresh parsley; the latter, leaves of sage. Such sumptuous elements afford mere nibbles, though, compared to the layer of creamy mozzarella that blankets those pizzas. Frankie's lets its milky fresh mozz dominate. It's maternal.


The cheeseless pizza Napoletana ($6.95) is topped with fresh garlic, capers, oregano, olives and salted Sicilian anchovies. It showcases a sauce entirely worth flaunting?balanced in sweetness and acidity, paving a middle route between salty Grimaldi's and sugary Lombardi's. I could probably enjoy a Lil' Frankie's Napoletana every other day. Though I'd have to request "well-done" every time, because I like a little char. The brown underside of my first Frankie's Napoletana indicates another leaning toward the savory, away from pizza machismo.


Frankie's crust will probably prove to be the main attraction of the restaurant, unless you count the oven that creates it. The brick dome allows for temperatures near 900 degrees, resulting in a hyper-dry crispiness, memories of which instantly inspire craving. It'd make sense to assume that light applications of sauce are to protect this supreme consistency of crust, if only the Napoletana were at all soggy. In fact, Lil' Frankie's thin crust doesn't even go limp when vigorously chewed, at which time it asserts a toothsome doughyness.


The restaurant sagaciously maximizes its usage of this remarkable crust. A pair of Piadine sandwiches featuring fresh basil, arugula and mozzarella?one with Prosciutto di Parma ($8.25), the other ($5.25) with just tomato (since Frankie's acquires excellent tomatoes even in winter, this Caprese would be far from your run-of-the-mill vegetarian sandwich even if it were served on a mere baguette)?are baked between sheets of it. The melodious herbs and crisp crust together can be startling: so compact and simple, yet airily lush.


Lil' Frankie's oven's masterpiece might be a special dessert, the Nutella Focaccino ($6.95). A waiter told us that the dish has its own ardent following. It arrives looking like a pizza-crust quesadilla, dusted on top with powdered sugar. Inside are layers of chocolate hazelnut butter and fresh strawberry slices, drizzled with liquor. I tell everyone I bring to Frankie's to get this dessert, but sometimes the homemade tiramisu ($6.95) or panna cotta ($5.95) go over better. Both are significantly above average, though lacking the inclusion of pizza crust. The panna cotta has been coming with strong raspberries lately, and its eggless texture is unique?somewhere between custard and soft ice cream.


Several side dishes are blended with parmesan and/or other cheeses and baked in the oven. The spinach makes for a nice break from the sauteed norm, and a butternut squash further attests to the proprietors' selection of vegetables for richness of flavor.


If you're going to Frankie's for pizza, the best way to experience that keen vegetative touch might be to appetize via the antipasti or salad offerings. Portobellos are roasted in the oven with tomato and arugula ($6.95, or $9.90 with the addition of Gorgonzola dolce). The house-cured tuna ($6.95) seemed a little overdone the time I tried it, but some luxurious olive oil (the pizzas, too, are anointed just before serving?an authentic touch) and a delicate accompanying salad of cannellini beans, parsley and red onion promoted my thought process to vacation mode.


The Lil' Frankie's salad ($6.95) comes on a large plate ringed with morsels of potato, beet, green bean, zucchini, fennel and more. A dressing on the surrounded bed of arugula leaves proved surprisingly unsubtle, a little bombastic with the balsamic and salt. It might have been a cook's error, but I found it more to my taste?and in concert with my expectations for Southern Italian cooking?than Lil' Frankie's more lullaby-ish flavors. Anyway, the arugula handled it.


The appetizer I most strongly recommend is the fava bean soup with dandelion greens ($3.95). It conveys an amazing smoothing-over of the tension described above. I couldn't at first fathom a large-bean dish without any vinegar or sodium, but Frankie's dandelions give off a mustardy bitterness, which serves to season the gentle, pureed favas as if from a great distance. I noticed that even a baby liked this soup, and babies don't usually do bitters. The dish is like a play where two characters portray the entire range of human emotion. Your habitual mind tells you something is missing in the middle, while your senses say it's not.


It's so easy to fill up on simple, inexpensive, delicious small dishes at Lil' Frankie's that it's hard to find a reason to order any of the pasta, meat or fish entrees. There's every reason to expect them to be exquisitely seasoned, and, of course, all are baked in the miraculous wood-burning brick oven. For those whose upbringing sagged them with an aversion to ambrosial thin-crust, I'll mention that Frankie's offers daily "Pasta al Forno"s on a rotating basis: rigatoni with eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil on Sundays and Fridays; homemade spinach gnocchi with tomato and basil on Mondays and Saturdays; and lasagne Bolognese on Thursdays.


In the square bounded by Houston and 2nd Sts. to the north and south, 2nd Ave. and Ave. A to the west and east, Lil' Frankie's delivery minimum is only $5. The irregularly shaped $10-minimum delivery zone is vast?stretching out to Ave. D above Houston, down to Canal between Essex and Lafayette, over to Broadway between Broome and 8th St. and up to 14th St. between 4th Ave. and Ave. B. Lil' Frankie is going to feed the entire East Village and more, God bless him. A whole bunch of children don't know how lucky they are. Someday, they'll find out?the hard way.


Lil' Frankie's Pizza, 19 1st Ave. (betw. 1st & 2nd Sts.), 420-4900.




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