Lil’ Frankie’s Pizza

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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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