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Chefs on the Grill: Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo

With the Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion out this week, the city’s preeminent spokesmen for Italian-American cuisine talk gravy and grandmas.

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What inspired you and your team (co-author Peter Meehan, designer Travis Lee Kauffman) to create the look and feel of an old-fashioned almanac?
Frank Falcinelli: We came across an old set of books called the Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide, and it really struck a chord.
Frank Castronovo: One of the problems I have with all the beautiful cookbooks today is that they’re coffee-table books.
FF:And it’s hard to get the information out of them.

While yours is full of tips on everything from shucking clams to growing an avocado tree. What’s the one essential piece of equipment every New Yorker should have?
FC: The BeeBo cavatelli maker. It went out of business. I want to find out how to make it, and manufacture it, and I want to put our name on it.
FF: We’re going to call it the Frankatelli maker.

What single recipe should be in everyone’s repertoire?
FF: Tomato sauce.
FC: You use it in everything. You make soup out of it, put it over your pasta, use it for eggplant, braciole, meatballs, gnocchi.

You write that you never use the word “gravy” for tomato sauce. Why not?
FF: Because gravy’s brown and murky, it’s what you put on a turkey.

Growing up, did you know anyone who called it gravy?
FF: No. You know who calls it gravy? Americans. And you know when Italian food gets messed up is when Americans get involved.

Some Italian-Americans seem ashamed by the red-sauce stereotype, but you embrace it.
FC: You are what you are. We’re from Queens Village. I used to go to my great-grandma’s house in Williamsburg every weekend. That’s where I developed my palate as a little boy.

How much are the book’s recipes yours versus your grandmas’?
FF: It’s 50-50. We did a lot of polishing on the old stuff. A lot of stuff didn’t need polishing.

When you do polish, how do your relatives take it?
FC: They still think we can’t cook. My grandfather would come into the restaurant and say, “You can’t cook, I gotta cook it, lemme show you how to make the cavatellis.”

This is your first book. What took so long?
FC: We spent over twenty years apiece cooking at some of the hardest French restaurants. We wanted to design a menu—because we had to cook it—that was going to be easy to do, but wouldn’t take away from the quality of the food, and that menu is this book. So it did take us a collective 40 years to put together.

Speaking of labor-intensive haute cuisine, do you miss cooking French?
FF: Yeah, at some point we’re going to open a French restaurant—high-end, [Michel] Guérard stuff. Trois étoiles.

You’re kidding.
FC: No, we do French probably better than we do Italian and the stuff at Prime Meats. I want to be in that position when I’m in my early fifties, because it’s a little more sophisticated. I need time to develop, mature.

So you predict a comeback for French food in New York?
FC: Everything comes around, and when it does, hopefully we’re at the head of the curve.


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