Back in the early aughts, I was in a relationship with a woman who lived on Fourth Place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The Brooklyn restaurant wave had already come to the nearby neighborhood drag, Smith Street, and we frequented places like Robin Du Bois and Patois and poked our heads into The Grocery from time to time before a front-page Times article about its exalted Zagat ranking in 2003 made the place mostly inaccessible. (A single restaurant's Zagat ranking making A1? It does feel like a time before time.)
It was also before I'd co-founded the website Eater, which meant I didn't take intense interest in the plywood that my girlfriend spotted covering what appeared to be a new restaurant-in-the-making around the corner on Court Street. But I was writing my six-month-old blog, Curbed, and in fall 2004, a reader pointed out that the proprietors of the place were blogging their construction progress. As tame as this seems in 2010, it was highly unusual in those halcyon days of blogging, and I thought it was pretty much the greatest thing ever. Curbed's blog post about it led another reader to email: "Enjoyed the link to the Frankies 457 blog. There's a lot going on in that neighborhood right now… Is Court Street the new Smith Street? May I suggest a name for this little part of Carroll Gardens -- LoCo, as in Lower Court?"
The neighborhood name didn't catch on, but the restaurant did. The first time I walked into Frankies Spuntino 457, I immediately liked the place. It was hard not to: it had a rustic vibe, but not in that annoying trying-too-hard way; the kitchen was open, and the antipasti on display looked serious. But like those before, and so many after, it only took one dish to win my patronage: the cavatelli with sausage. The dish isn't mentioned in Dana Bowen's $25 and Under review of Frankies Spuntino in the Times from November 2004, which stuns me -- could it possibly not have been on the menu yet? Can one even conceive of Frankies without that small but firm house-made pasta, the near-perfect sausage slices, and a browned sage butter sauce that wraps everything together into something approaching the sublime?
Six years later, with the empire having extended next door (Prime Meats), to Manhattan (Frankies 17), and with rumors of outposts as far afield from Brooklyn as Portland, Ore., the Franks -- Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo -- are bona fide restaurant royalty. From that perch comes the inevitable cookbook, which arrived earlier this year: The Frankies' Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. Similar to last year's Momofuku cookbook, the book is a history in recipes and a history in stories of the Frankies restaurants. Also like the Momofuku cookbook, it's co-authored by Peter Meehan, the former $25 And Under reviewer for the Times and a regular presence on the New York City restaurant scene. (As such, I know Meehan and will always owe him one for telling me I really should check out this new place on First Avenue called Momofuku Noodle Bar. I've also met the Franks at various industry events, but I doubt they'd pick me out of a police lineup, should it ever come to that.)
The Frankies cookbook is beautiful. It's a smallish hardcover -- a dark blue cover with gold-embossed type that abandons the restaurants' casual rusticity for what feels in the hand more like something from the shelves of a rare-books Ivy League library. Milton this is not, but there's no question that first and foremost, it's a beautiful object. If you're looking for a holiday gift for the food lover in your life, no one would be unhappy to unwrap it.
* * *
If the Frankies cookbook is the gilt-edged belle of the cookbook ball, URBAN PANTRY, by Amy Pennington with photographs by Della Chen, is the proud mother standing unassumingly in the back. As much a cookbook as a call to arms for urban home cooks to get it together before the cooking starts, the book bills itself as a "modern, sustainable approach to stocking your small kitchen."
The book includes about five dozen recipes, but it begins and centers on what most cookbooks relegate to an appendix somewhere in the back: how to properly stock a kitchen so that one may cook without needing to buy this spice or that grain at the store every time some new recipe is undertaken. Pennington starts by recalling her problems cooking at a friend's apartment where, time after time, she has to do exactly that: "His pantry was, in a world, dismal. My requests for such simple items as butter were met with a sheepish grin. There is no whipping up of meals at Marcus's house. You need to have a plan if you're going to cook in his kitchen. Usually we all show up with canvas bags packed full of ingredients, unpack them to cook, and then pack up what's left over at the end of the night."
Allow me to say that I do not know Pennington and that, as such, Marcus is not a fake name that she's kindly substituted for my real name. But the similarities are chilling. Unlike Marcus, I go through occasional spurts of pantry (if the three small cabinets above my sink and tiny counter can be called such) stocking, only to let what's there spoil before I return to it. But, very much like Marcus, I'm more or less starting from scratch no matter what I'm cooking. The sad upshot: even the simplest meal often costs at least $50, which makes $15-$20 spent on delivery seem like the right move more often than not.
Perhaps, though, I told myself with Pennington's book slung under my arm, one of these restockings will stick. Perhaps this one! I'm thirty-six years old! If not now, when? If not me, who?
Pondering those troubling questions no further, I emptied my cupboards and took stock of what I had on hand. The sad pile that resulted: a mostly-full bag of flour; sugar; two tins of baking powder (the sort of thing an occasional chef such as me always assumes I need when confronted with a shopping list; I'm surprised I didn't find myself with six containers of the stuff); pine nuts; panko breadcrumbs; an unopened bag of chestnuts (seriously, WTF); a box of corn starch; and, finally, a perfectly nice looking bottle of peanut oil.
Peanut oil? When in the world did I buy that? A check of the back of the bottle offered a clue: "SELL BY JULY 2005." Oh, hey, 2004. Was Peanut Oil a thing back then? What in the world did I cook with peanut oil? The viscous solution sloshing around in the bottle offered no answers as I deposited it in the garbage bag at my feet. May that not be the fate of my shiny new bottle of peanut oil in 2016.
The first chapter of Urban Pantry lays out Pennington's advice on stocking the pantry. The actual ingredient advice doesn't differ wildly from those appendixes in some other cookbooks, but what it's got going for it is the author's raw enthusiasm: "I love my pantry," the chapter begins. "I feel a sense of security in my well-stocked pantry," she adds a few paragraphs later. The full-page photograph fronting these words is even more inspirational -- open wooden shelves stocked with well-labeled cans and Ball jars. Who doesn't dream of their kitchen looking like that? And so it was off to Whole Foods, where basics to augment my flour and sugar were bought, along with, yes, Ball jars. Back at home, shelves were cleaned off and scrubbed down and bags of ingredients transferred to the jars where, sure enough, they immediately look a whole lot more correct.
The obvious but surprising upside to all this only became clear when the shelves were fully restocked: after thinking things through, and organizing into space-saving vertical containers, my tiny cupboards could suddenly hold a whole lot more. I can honestly see myself not letting random ingredients rot this time around.
After the opening call to arms, the bulk of Pennington's book is recipes, some of the sort that exploit the pantry well. Hippie Hotcakes let me utilize a purchase of grain-of-the-moment quinoa. Not bad. Another recipe we cooked, Baked Eggs with Kale & Crusty Bread, proved simple and delicious, but didn't really capitalize on the pantry we'd stocked. Such is the case with a bunch of the recipes in this book -- "Perfect Roast Chicken" sounds appealing, for example, but for a classic of that kind, I'd default to Mark Bittman.
Perhaps the recipes in Urban Pantry are beside the point. Just as one buys a personal finance book as an excuse to focus on money or a motivational business book at the airport to get all serious about the art of managing people while en route to Chicago, the purchase of Pennington's book is a promise to oneself to fill an apartment with the goods needed to whip something up without that trip to Whole Foods. Or at least a trip to Whole Foods that doesn't result in an eye-gouging bill.
I'm grateful to Pennington, but it's hard to see when I'd pull Urban Pantry off the shelf again in the course of recipe hunting. Still, Urban Pantry will have done its job if it just sits on my cookbook pile, whispering, "Stay organized." Mom -- I mean ma'am -- I intend to!
* * *
Living on the Lower East Side, well inside the delivery range of the Frankies outpost on Clinton Street, has made the Franks' food regulars on my dinner table. I figured attempting to match their goodness would be challenging, but I didn't realize quite how challenging until my girlfriend and I opened the cookbook early one Sunday evening to decide on a few recipes to try that night.
It was Sunday, and the Sunday Sauce section of the cookbook is certainly alluring -- but of course, that's a process that would have had to start long before sundown (as is explained by a charming six-page flowchart). No matter. What of that Cavatelli with Sausage and Browned Sage Butter, which the cookbook declares "the 10-to-1 favorite for what a guy will order on a first date"? Turn first to the recipe for Ricotta Cavatelli, which requires -- a cavatelli maker. Hm, don't have one handy. A bunch of other possibilities led us down similarly time-dependent roads, until finally, this exclamation from my girlfriend: "We can make crostini! Wait, no we can't. They want us to make the bread."
So yeah, long prep times. Which is all fine and good if you're in that zone or have a personal assistant, but not so good when you get home from work and haven't had the presence of mind to start prepping tonight's dinner sometime yesterday. (Truth be told, that Sunday, we ended up cooking from Andrew Carmellini's Urban Italian cookbook, an experience which hints that there's a different (better?) sort of utility from cookbooks focused on cooking well at home versus enshrining a restaurant's precise processes. Also, isn't it kind of cool that page 109 of Carmellini's book features a pasta recipe by one Rich Torrisi? I digress.)
Another night, we started earlier, with a plan to tackle two dishes that could be accomplished without day-before prep: Meatballs, plus another personal favorite, Escarole and Cannellini Bean Soup. The soup turned out fine, but we cheated and used (high quality! organic!) store-bought vegetable broth in lieu of undergoing hour-plus time required for Frankies Vegetable Broth. The cloying box taste of the soup's broth revealed our corner-cutting all too obviously. Point, Franks.
Making the meatballs meant first making the restaurants' signature red sauce, which turned out to be an incredibly pleasurable experience. "Take your time—there's no rushing it," the recipe advises, and so we did. It simmered on the stove for the whole of the four recommended hours, and well, holy hell. It's phenomenal. Quarts of this stuff are now encased in tupperware in my freezer, so I've got that going for me. As for the meatballs, they turned out delicious if misshapen; combined with the sauce, I could have been sitting at 457 Court or 17 Clinton.
I haven't given proper credit to all the book's charming Meehan-influenced asides, like the "Cooking with Tony" page in which the wisdom of the Franks' friend Tony Durazzo is dispensed. Or noted the fact that its front section on kitchen stocking and equipment is as authoritative in its milieu as Urban Pantry is in its.
If cooking from the Frankies Cookbook can feel laborious, well, one figures that the Franks want it that way -- that it is their way, and that therein lies the charm of the book -- and the food. So be it. Let's just hope their next cookbook doesn't request that we all spend three months growing beards before digging in.
VERDICT: FRANKIES SPUNTINO KITCHEN COMPANION & COOKING MANUAL