I keep thinking that restaurant phenomena cannot get any stranger, and then I find another one. Submitted for your consideration, Frankies 457 Spuntino.
Just to unpack that mouthful of a name takes some work. Frankies are the chefs–owners, Frankie Castronovo and Frankie Falcinelli, and 457 is their address on Court Street, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Spuntino is an Italian word referring to an informal meal or snack. Like many a celebrity chef these days, the Frankies worked for culinary superstars like David Bouley and Charlie Palmer, then decided they wanted to make it small.
The two Franks opened this casual place to rave reviews in 2004, and then a sequel, Frankies 17 Spuntino in 2006, on Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Then came Prime Meats late last year, and all hell broke loose. Two doors down from the original Frankies, it received two stars from Sam Sifton in the Times. The two Franks now have a cookbook—you can see it in the window, in the photo at the top of this post.
The strange phenomenon is not that the two Franks built a miniature restaurant empire from humble beginnings—many have done that—but that the rapturous raves for the original restaurant vastly outstrip its merits. Don’t get me wrong: Frankies is a cute place, well worth a diverting little meal, if you happen to find yourself in Carroll Gardens.
But the big feature spreads in Food & Wine, New York, GQ, Travel & Leisure, and so forth? I don’t get it.
Frankies was where I dined on my way to something else: Prime Meats. Reservations aren’t taken, and I knew we’d need to arrive early to have any shot at dining there. After a transit delay, we arrived at 6:30 p.m. On a Saturday evening, that wasn’t going to cut it: we were quoted a two-hour wait. We put our name in, but I was fairly certain my son and I would find something else.
Down the block, at Frankies, we were quoted 45 to 60 minutes. We wandered outside to ponder that, but moments later the host ran after us: “Don’t go too far. I am almost ready to seat you.” Forty-five minutes had turned into six.
The narrow space is a former blacksmith’s shop, rough and ready, with bare wooden tables and a pressed tin ceiling. The two Franks have made as much of it as they can, but you need to be limber to manoever through the cramped space. There’s a garden in the back that they rent for wedding parties at $90 a head. I wouldn’t choose Frankies for that, but someone did: we saw a large party with men in suits and tuxes, and women in strapless summer gowns, traipse through the über-casual dining room.
The menu is simple, which it needs to be, as the kitchen is apparently quite small. It’s dominated by cheeses, cured meats, salads, soups, sandwiches, crostini, and antipasti. There are eight or so entrées, mostly pastas, and mostly under $15.
There was nothing revelatory about a chef’s choice antipasto plate (above; $15), but there was nothing wrong with it either. You’d be happy to have it in your neighborhood.
Our entrées were a clear cut above the average pasta parlor, though I wouldn’t tell you to travel to Carroll Gardens for them. My son had the House-Made Cavatelli with Hot Sausage and Brown Sage Butter ($15; above left), I the Sweet Sausage, Roasted Red Peppers & Onions over Pine Nut Polenta ($14; above right). There was real skill in both dishes. Of all things, I was especially impressed with the polenta, smooth and creamy. It takes some guts to serve that in lieu of pasta.
About an hour in, as our meal was winding down, the host from Prime Meats called: they were ready to seat us. That’s only half of what we were quoted, but still a remarkably long wait for an early dinner on a Saturday. Obviously, we said no, thank you. Prime Meats will have to wait.
Service was fine, but you could tell the staff wants tables to turn. So do the many standees who line the edge of the room, ready to pounce as soon as the next party leaves. Even if this were the kind of restaurant that encouraged lingering, you’d feel a bit guilty about doing it.
Credit cards aren’t accepted, but dinner doesn’t break the bank. Even after a lemonade for my son, a cocktail, and a half-liter of wine, the bill was only $90 including tax and tip. At that price, I didn’t regret the meal at all, but I don’t quite get all the media attention lavished on what is, after all, just a very useful neighborhood place.
Frankies 457 Spuntino (457 Court St. between Luquer St. & 4th Pl., Carroll Gardens)