As Hurricane Sandy descended on Red Hook, Frankies Falcinelli and Castronovo - the men behind the Spuntino culinary empire - decided to stay home and cook up a storm
“Somebody from the restaurant just asked me to go get sandbags,” said Frank Falcinelli, smiling at his guests as he pocketed his iPhone. “I was like, ‘There’s zero chance of me gettin’ sandbags — you know that, right?’” It was a little past noon several Sundays ago in Red Hook. The floodgates of hell were about to burst open, but we didn’t know that yet — couldn’t possibly have imagined — and so we all had a good long laugh. And why not? We were the lucky ones who had gathered for supper in the yard behind Falcinelli’s tastefully ramshackle townhouse, preparing for an epic feast courtesy of the famous Franks — Falcinelli and his business partner, Frank Castronovo — the celebrated duo behind the Frankies culinary empire. Besides, there was hardly even a breeze.
"Somebody from the restaurant just asked me to go get sandbags. I was like, 'There's zero chance of me gettin' sandbags — you know that, right?'"
Falcinelli, clad in a camo surplus military jacket and jaunty, foreign-correspondent-style neckerchief, was hovering over the paella ingredients bubbling on his grill — a wobbly pile of old bricks stacked around a camp fire with a utility shelf doing griddle duty — monitoring each pot’s progress like a plate spinner in a circus act. The menu, like most of Frankies’ offerings, was simple and indulgent: Two types of paella (chicken and seafood), sliced apple and eggplant salad and a bowl of warm ricotta “that tastes good on everything.” A tin-foil pan overflowing with squid and olive oil lay precariously close to Frank’s foot in the dirt. He was explaining how Frankies Spuntino, a retro Italian throwback, redefined the urban dining experience, one meatball at a time. The “Frankies guys,” as they’re often referred to, have since expanded beyond their original Court Street stronghold with a Manhattan location on Hudson Street, a jam-packed coffee shop (Café Pedlar), a German steakhouse (Prime Meats), a best-selling cookbook and a line of high-end olive oils. Legions of aspiring restaurateurs take their cues from the duo, hoping to crack their code.
Considering Falcinelli’s turn-of-the-century aesthetic, it’s jarring to imagine him at Moomba — the models-and-bottles Page Six-staple that ruled Manhattan nightlife in the late 90s — but that’s where he and his food first got noticed. After a four-year run, Moomba closed its doors in 2001 sending Frank into the wilderness. He did some design and consulting work and plenty of “fucking around” in Europe.
By 2003, Falcinelli had “eaten at every restaurant in the world and gone and seen everything that you could see that was out there,” he says, with just a dash of hyperbole. “So one day I was like, ‘I’m gonna open an Italian restaurant that’s open all day and serves clean, organic food.’ It was basically the next level of what hospitality was but it wasn’t recognized yet.”
He was living on Commerce Street in the West Village at the time, but quickly realized Manhattan was a non-starter. “I looked at The Waverly Inn, I looked at Snack, I looked at all these locations, but to compete against Mario Batali and Jean-Georges and Charlie Palmer and David Burke was just impossible at that time.” The rents were just too damn high.
Eventually, a friend who grew up in Carroll Gardens mentioned a vacant space at 457 Court Street near St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, where Al Capone got married.
“I was looking to do the ‘fixie gear’ of restaurants,” says Falcinelli. “Totally stripped down, with great food, great alcohol — really intelligent without saying we’re intelligent. Really designed, without saying it’s designed,” he says. “So I got this place and I’m running around, but I still need a fuckin’ partner. At this point, I still haven’t even run into Frank!”
The now legendary run-in that reunited the two Franks — who grew up three blocks away from each other in Queens Village, and pursued parallel culinary careers in both Europe and the U.S., but hadn’t been in touch in more than 18 years — took place in front of Falcinelli’s house on Commerce.
Castronovo, who’d recently moved back to the States after living in Germany, was doing some consulting work, raising two girls and thinking about opening a place of his own. That afternoon, he was taking his usual shortcut through the West Village when he realized he was being followed. Unsure if he was about to get robbed or popped by the cops for a traffic violation, he pulled over to the curb to confront the goons who had been tailing him. He was parked in front of Frank’s house.
“I jumped out of the car to say something to the guys when all of a sudden I see Frank looking at me through his window,” Castronovo says, with a laugh. “Frank’s like, ‘What’s up man? How you been? What have you been up to?’ [After the guys drove off], we started talking and realized we were both at this weird point and it all just sort of worked out.” (He never did figure out who those goons were.)
With the Court Street location secured, the pair immediately began plotting. Soon after, Travis Lee Kauffman, an artist pal who had been teaching computer art classes at NYU and Hunter College, was brought in to give the Frankies’ brand its famed ye olde aesthetic:
“We designed that first restaurant and basically everything else since then with the same idea in mind,” explains Kauffman. “If it was the turn of the century, what tools would we have available to us to design with? We use computers, obviously, but try to think like we don’t.”
(Eleven years later, “Everything you see that says Frankies on it is all Travis,” says Castronovo, proudly.)
"If you like a good song and you like a good tomato and you like a well-designed piece of furniture and you like a hot girl, all the aesthetics are the same."
From the very beginning, says Falcinelli, every element of the dining experience was given equal weight. “Despite what it might look like, it’s really engineered,” he says. “Beyond just the food, there are 50 or 60 different points — from the music to the lighting to the atmosphere to the shape of the menu and the design of it — that go into each of our places. If you like a good song and you like a good tomato and you like a well-designed piece of furniture and you like a hot girl, all the aesthetics are the same. It all comes down to a certain kind of math, and if you understand what that is, you understand what that is. I’m always kind of afraid of somebody who’s a really good designer but they’re into wack music or they wear wack clothes or their house is fucked up. They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t care about that stuff.’ You gotta care. It’s all part of the same thing!”
After too many rounds of cucumber-infused G&Ts, and enough Falcinelli aphorisms to fill a small volume (e.g. “Bamboo is for people who don’t know how to grow other shit”), dinner is served. Castronovo’s wife, Heike, and two daughters — Louise, 16, and Sophie, 12 — join Frank’s girlfriend, Audrey Louise Reynolds, a fabric dyer who sells to major fashion labels, beneath a jerry-rigged tarp under the porch. The temperature has dropped ten degrees at this point, and by the time we’re clearing up things have started to sound serious. The fire department is going door-to-door, someone says. It’s probably a good time to motor.
A week later, Frank sends an update: “Just got my phone up and running. Four feet of water in the house. No heat. No electric. No gas. Where we were eating on Sunday was six feet of water. Ocean water. My truck almost floated away. Other than that all is cool. What was the feedback from Sunday?”
Best paella we’ve ever had.