Saturday, September 2, 2017

Francesco's: The Last Great Italian-American Restaurant

Francesco's (600 Mamaroneck Ave, White Plains, NY; 914-946-3359) is the last surviving great Italian-American restaurant, to my knowledge. It's what everybody hopes Rao's to be, and, in its own way, it's just as elusive.

The restaurant is set up pub-style, a la 1961. A dim, gloomy bar with blaring TV occupies one half, and tavern-style tables fill the other. It's not cheerful. And prices are two or three notches higher than you'd expect - the natural course of a restaurant that's been around for ages taking the easier route of creeping up prices rather than changing habits on their end. If Francesco's was amenable to change, it wouldn't be what it is: a living museum of Italian-American cooking from a half-century ago.

I'll let the photos and captions do the talking, food-wise. But here's the thing to know:

When chef/owner Frank cooks, it's like angels singing. But Frank's getting older, and lets his assistants do most of the cooking. And they're good-not-great. Which, per my theory of the non-linearity of deliciousness, means their food's about 1/10000th as good, though still the best Italian-American in the county.

Frank almost never cooks dinner, and only sometimes cooks lunch. Your best bet is to show up around 3:30 pm, when the place is dead and Frank's doing paperwork at the bar. Then, he has no choice but to cook for you. Just don't make him feel pressured. Order some wine (Pinot Noir is your best choice) and chill until Frank can muster the energy to go hit the kitchen - and be damned glad that, creeky and recalcitrant though he is, Frank is still doing this at all.

However you try to game it, odds are high you'll wind up being cooked for by Frank's minions. Price that in! It's worth multiple visits to strike gold. Results this good should never come easily.

The restaurant offers a large menu, but I suggest sticking to the following dishes. A smart first-visit order would be pasta with (hot) sausage and broccoli rabe, garlic bread (with or without cheese), and a bar pizza (bathe in the carbs). Those are can't-fail greatest hits - especially if Frank's cooking.

Ok, let's go to the videotape:

Penne with broccoli rabe and hot sausage. I wasn't aiming for photogenic results from my shakes of cheese and chili flakes, so ignore the porny element and just behold the underlying food.

Same dish, another day. Not made by Frank. Broccoli rabe appears to be mourning. But still worthy!

Tripe, a special. GAWD. I never remember to order this, or to recommend it to others, even though this photo always makes me shudder (I revisit my Francesca's photos often). It was so good that it sort of burnt out my memory circuits as I ate it. No trace remains, just a shudder response.

One of Frank's "creative" specials. Only he can get away with such a thing. You can imagine what happens when a non-Frank attempts this.

Cautionary tale. You don't want to stray too far on the menu. This is one of Francesco's myriad chicken dishes, and while it's certainly not bad at all, you'll instantly wish you'd ordered one of the hits. All the more so if Frank's not cooking.

Sicilian baked ziti, with eggplant. Nobody makes it like this anymore.

The thin crackery crust bar pizza is perfection, baked in the ovens in Plato's cave. I've settled on meatball/onion (not garlic, because I often accompany with garlicky food like that pasta dish). With any other restaurant, this would be the headline. Also, the minions do a good job with pizza.

I haven't had great garlic bread since early childhood, the era when 2nd and 3rd generation Italians were going to law or medical school rather than working in restaurants. 1st generation Frank is a holdover. If you remember 1970s garlic bread, this will be like a homecoming. Cross this off the "extinct" list.

Cheesy garlic bread. Remarkably different effect. Is it great cheese? No. Is it even good cheese? Uh-uh. Yet Frank's alchemy evokes grandeur.

I type through tears: in-progress meatball parm with broccoli rabe hero...on....wait for it...garlic bread.

Broccoli rabe with garlic. I know.

Mashed potatoes. Francesco's, as I said, serves Italian-American food. Not Italian. Frank was born in Italy, and has a heavy accent, but he long ago took the plunge and cut the cord. However, these mashed potatoes might have been made by any nonna back in the old country. Only here does Frank reveal his roots.

For an awesome cooking tip from Frank, see here.

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