For a city as large as New York it’s kind of ironic that nothing stays undiscovered for very long. Somehow the whiff of something new makes its way into the air and those with sensitive noses follow the aroma until they are part of it too. Like restaurants. Years ago I stumbled across a mention of a new place in Brooklyn that seemed to warrant a field trip from Manhattan. The thing about Brooklyn is that the people who live there always insist it is closer than it is. Okay, if you live near Wall Street I suppose it is close but for Upper West siders it is a 45 minute trip and don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s not.
When Frankies 457 Spuntino (‘little snack’ in Italian) first opened in the fall of 2004 the seven block walk from the subway through the sleepy, residential old-school Italian neighborhood was silent and dark. The restaurant is on the first floor of a sweet, little building and has a garden and what was once a stable out back with additional seating. Back then you were greeted with a warm welcome by someone decidedly new school, hip, but nice, and even if there was a bit of a wait there was always room at the bar. Well, a lot can happen in 5 ½ years. Now the explosion of restaurants and wine bars has added a buzzy soundtrack to the area. So, when Rich recently decided to celebrate his birthday at a spot he considered worthy of a East River crossing on the F train (even though a Frankies had since come to Manhattan) I was up for it, but a little concerned.
I had reason to be. I got to the restaurant first and I’d like someone to tell me if, along with banning trans-fats and alerting the sodium police, Mayor Bloomberg has issued a proclamation that every Brooklyn restaurant manager has to wear the same uniform.
Pseudo intellectual meets hipster-nerd: dark, heavy framed glasses, crewneck (or sometimes V-neck) sweater atop a wrinkled oxford shirt and, the most important part of the outfit, a blasé, too-cool-for-school attitude.
When I approached the man who wishes he was Elvis Costello and said, very nicely, that we’d be five people for dinner he consulted his tattered, spiral notebook and slowly responded, “Yeah. That’s going to be a bit of a longer wait for five? (Why did his sentence end in a question?) I’d say about two hours?”
Two hours?! Yes, the tables were full, as was the bar, but there wasn’t a Manhattan-like crowd of people waiting on the sidewalk. No one was pushing or shoving to get in. What was going on? (By the way, they don’t take reservations for parties fewer than eight.)
“Are you going to leave a name?” Mr. Surly said.
I did, as well as my cell number in case things opened up a bit earlier, although my intention was to come up with a plan B and eat someplace else. When the birthday boy arrived 25 minutes late he was not happy to hear he wouldn’t be dining for quite some time. Having not eaten since breakfast he was in a hunger induced stupor and unable to think or apparently speak coherently (there was some muttering I couldn’t decipher). The rest of his band of merry men was full of “I don’t really know the area” and “whatever you want.” Clearly someone needed to take control. Wonder who it was?
And now our hike up (or was it down?) Smith Street began. What were the odds we were going to be able to find a table for five, without a reservation, on the first gorgeous, warm night in months on one of Brooklyn’s most popular dining corridors? Not high at all. The vagueness of our group was starting to drive me crazy as I marched with purpose leading the pack of meanderers. It had been a good hour with lots of “that looks okay but let’s walk a little more this way?” and “there’s a good vegan restaurant!” (No thanks) and “what about this tapas place? Oh it’s a little pricey.” And then, at last, we found a bistro where I thought we would drop anchor. I approached the maitres d’ and just as she was telling me it would only be a five minute wait my cell phone rang. Yup, my favorite charmless manager said, “Yeah, your table will be ready in 20 minutes?”
“We’ll be there!” I promised. Rallying the troops proved easier than anticipated since hunger was now a major motivator and the promise of bread and wine put a spring, or sprint, in our steps. Still, arriving at Frankie’s sweaty, thirsty and starving wasn’t the most elegant way to begin a birthday dinner. No matter. My troubles floated away with each glug of Barbera D’Alba and bite of Tagliatelle Bolognese. Everyone seemed happy with his selections and my favorite part of the meal was yet to come!
I’ve talked about my anthropomorphic feeling about prunes before. I really do feel sorry for the little cuties. They get a bum rap when they are just so good. These red wine stewed jewels are like spicy, jammy surprises. The sauce is thick and sweet and the contrast with the tang of the mascarpone (or yogurt or ricotta) wakes up the palate with a just a loud enough ‘hello!’ And for those of you keeping the Passover dietary rules, you will thank me for this fiber packed treat. And that’s all I’ll say on the matter. Next time I think I’ll push for Frankies 17 Clinton Street Spuntino. Yes, we’ll still have to take the F train but we’ll be in Manhattan and maybe the manager will be friendlier(?) Doubtful. I think I'll save a swipe of my Metrocard and make these prunes myself!
Not Your Grandfather’s Stewed Prunes
Adapted from Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli
from the New York Times, May 31, 2006
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1 pound pitted prunes
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 sticks cinnamon
2 ½ cups dry red wine
2 eight ounce containers mascarpone or Greek yogurt or fresh ricotta or even 2 pints of vanilla ice cream
In a medium saucepan combine prunes, sugar, cinnamon and wine and cook over medium-high heat until mixture comes to a boil.Lower heat to simmer and cook 45 minutes until liquid is syrupy.Remove from heat and let cool 15 minutes.Place a nice helping of mascarpone, yogurt, ricotta or even vanilla ice cream in a bowl and top with 5-6 prunes per person, drizzle with extra sauce and enjoy.
Yield: 6 servings