The Wonders of Ravioli at Frank’s

Frank's exteriorClint Rainey Frank Restaurant & Vera Bar, 88 Second Avenue.

Frank Prisinzano opened Frank’s, a trattoria on Second Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Street, in 1998, a time when the East Village was not yet a byword for funky cosmopolitanism. “I was the first of the small restaurants in the neighborhood,” Frank said, exercising perhaps a bit of poetic license. “People said we’d never make it. My ex-wife was out front, my father and I did the prep work.” They made it. Today the restaurant is the foundation of the Frankish empire, which also includes Lil’ Frankie and Supper, both on First Avenue between First and Second. And Frank himself is wreathed in glory, his restaurants celebrated in The Times, the Michelin Guide and elsewhere. Try getting a table at Supper on short notice.

Frank’s serves serious food in a self-consciously non-serious setting, which is to say that is very Lower East Side. On my first visit, I had a kind of galette made of an oozing straciatella the texture of crème fraiche on top of two thick slabs of tomato. Then I had fabulous beet ravioli. “It’s kind of a teenage-girl color,” my friend Nancy said — the purple of a scrunchy. It was a lovely summer day, and Nancy and I were sitting outside behind the white picket fence, which Frank has incongruously built out on to the sidewalk. Liesl Schillinger, the crackerjack book reviewer for The Times, walked by on her way to the Ottendorfer Public Library to return some books. That’s one of the nice things about sitting outside at Frank’s. Liesl was dressed for the season — vivid pink and lime green. “Her shirt was. . .” “The color of your lunch,” Nancy finished for me.

A month later I was back at Frank’s, now sitting inside at one of the rickety little tables covered in a bright paisley print. I had a meatball and sausage hero, the kind of thing which tastes like tomato-flavored sawdust at an inferior establishment, though not, I rightly surmised, at Frank’s. My Eritrean friend Ankelit, whose mother ran an Italian restaurant in Asmara, was not altogether persuaded by the tomato sauce — not quite sweet enough to her taste — but was deeply impressed by her ravioli alla zucca (butternut squash). Frank seems to have a gift for ravioli.

I asked the waiter where I could find Frank. Miraculously, he was in the next room. Frank’s has two narrow, parallel rooms, one with the kitchen at the back, the other with a bar along the side. Frank was sitting at a refectory table in the back of barroom wearing jeans and an old white t-shirt whose neck hung down to his chest. Frank has a receding hairline and well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and an enormous tattoo of a cobra coiling around and around his left arm. He looked, and sounded, like he should be delivering produce. But Frank Prisinzano is a proud and passionate chef. He had grown up in Queens in a food-adoring Italian household. “I was in the kitchen from the time I was eight,” Frank said. “I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, class of 1986, when I was 19. I was first in the class.” Frank trained with the caterer David Burke, and briefly worked for Charlie Palmer, the chef at Aureole. That lasted three weeks — too fussy for his taste.

Frank's interiorClint Rainey The interior of Frank’s, which “serves serious food in a self-consciously non-serious setting.”

Frank loves working with the materials. “I’m a chemistry/physics chef,” he said. When you eat at Frank’s, you are eating his Sicilian grandmother’s ragu, meatballs, gnocchi, ravioli. The cuisine at Supper, Frank’s high-end spot — only open at dinner, as the name implies — is largely Tuscan. (Lil’ Frankie’s serves pizza, as well as pasta.) Every November, Frank flies to Piemonte, in northern Italy, for the white truffles. “I know the best truffle hunters,” he told Ankelit and me. “I come right back on the plane with two kilograms of truffles, still heavy with the earth.” Truffles make Frank soar into poetic realms. I told him he sounded like Mario Batali. That was a mistake. Frank scowled, and said, “I know more than Mario Batali.”

Over time, Frank has expanded beyond food. He builds and furnishes his own restaurants. After 9/11 he opened up a pirate radio station in Lil’ Frankie’s; now plays over the Internet. The restaurants, Frank said, have become a nexus for artists, musicians, actors and actresses. Just then the bathroom door behind him opened, and a beautiful, thin, blonde young thing stepped out. Once she was out of earshot, Frank said, “She was in ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’” (No, not Nicole Kidman.)

Still, Grandma is never far away. When she died, age 92, Frank inherited the mismatched plates and silverware—perfect for his kitschy design esthetic. “You’re eating my grandmother’s food,” Frank said, “off my grandmother’s plates, with my grandmother’s silverware.”

Frank Restaurant & Vera Bar, 88 Second Avenue (between Fifth and Sixth Streets), 212-420-0106.