You might not know frank Crispo’s name, but chances are, you’ve eaten his food. He’s cooked around New York for twenty years or so, since graduating from the Culinary Institute and doing the obligatory tour of duty at La Côte Basque under Jean-Jacques Rachou. Unlike his peers (Charlie Palmer and Todd English among them), who went on to make their names and considerable fortunes on TV, best-seller lists, supermarket shelves – and occasionally, behind the stove – Crispo has kept a low profile, whether working invisibly as a consultant or earning good reviews and loyal customers at neighborhood trattorias like Andiamo! and Zeppole. In 1990, he teamed up with Palmer and Rick Moonen to open the ill-fated Chefs Cuisiniers Club, contrived to be the after-work hangout for chefs and their groupies that Blue Ribbon effortlessly became a couple years later.
CCC was ahead of its time: The dining public had yet to develop unhealthy fixations on the Iron Chef, Nigella’s sweater sets, and – thanks to Tony Bourdain – the unseemly side of mussels and brunch. But these days, anyone hungry for a brush with star-chefdom along with his fritto misto should head straight to West 14th Street, where Frank Crispo has reemerged to stake his eponymous claim, and where his many friends and colleagues – early birds like Claudia Fleming, Jimmy Bradley, and Barry Wine – have been dropping by to pay their respects and snack on prosciutto di San Daniele sliced with evident pride by the chef himself on a gorgeous, Ferrari-red hand-cranked machine.
From its offbeat décor to its thumbprint logo, Crispo looks like a very personal undertaking – a shot at something more permanent than the next McBistro. Crispo spent a couple years painstakingly refurbishing the long, narrow room, and between the bare bulbs, the pine planked floor, the floral banquette, and the welded-steel doors, he’s achieved a rough-hewn coziness, more tavern than trattoria. The service is of the generally deplored hello-my-name-is variety, but here, the young staff is so genuinely sweet and well-intentioned, they get away with it. By meal’s end, thanks in part to prices as easy to take as Crispo’s Italian-comfort-food menu, you may want to introduce yourself.
Excellent crusty bread sets the right tone, but restrain yourself – especially if the night’s specials include grilled pizza. The margherita, our favorite, is charred and smoky, modestly dabbed with tangy tomato sauce, homemade mozzarella, and basil. Unexpected touches elevate the rest of the appetizers from prosaic to polished: pickled eggplant accompanies roast peppers and plump anchovies; fresh mint enlivens braised artichokes; herby onion-and-shallot dice sandwiched between thick slices of ripe beefsteak tomatoes and milky-sweet buffalo mozzarella invigorate that old chestnut. And calamari-and-clam fritti has a secret weapon – its scene-stealing pepper-cumin dipping sauce.
Pastas make hearty entrées or, as half-portions, ideal second courses. A strozzapreti special is delectably dressed with a meaty, flavorful Bolognese full of carrots and wild mushrooms. The Swiss-chard–ricotta tortelloni looked like raviolini to us, but with a confetti of oven-dried tomatoes this intense, we won’t quibble. The lightly poached egg that arrives on top of terrific, seemingly creamless spaghetti carbonara leaks its unctuous yolk over strips of pancetta, slivered endive and parsley, and slick al dente noodles. The only thing missing is the shock of freshly ground pepper that the busboy happily provides.
Main courses have the Crispo thumbprint all over them. A pair of lamb chops, pounded thin and irresistibly breaded, is a nifty substitute for veal milanese. Pan-seared skate’s lobsterlike richness is offset by tarragon and grapefruit. Sliced hanger steak is as fork-tender as filet mignon, but packs a much more flavorful punch, and we love the buttery carrot-risotto cake that acts as a pedestal for this medium-rare work of art. To make it to dessert, you’ll need the endurance of a Nathan’s July 4 hot-dog-eating champion or the self-control of a Buddhist monk. If you do, go for the chocolate pot de crème served in a coffee-shop cup and saucer and harboring in its lush depths a buried treasure of macerated cherries. Crispo is something like that: a happy surprise, modestly presented, with a satisfyingly creative twist.
Crispo 240 West 14th Street (212-229-1818). Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $5.75 to $9; entrées, $12.50 to $16.95. All major credit cards.