Frank Prisinzano doesn’t believe in recipes. Instead, the chef and owner of five New York City restaurants—Frank, Lil’ Frankie’s, Lil’ Frankie’s Grocery, Supper, and Daddies—believes in cooking based on methods.
“I teach methods because it gives people the confidence to just walk in the kitchen and start cooking. That’s how my grandparents cooked, that’s how everyone I’ve ever known has cooked.”
Prisinzano argues that following recipes takes too much time and that it ultimately dilutes the enjoyment of cooking, that all you’re learning by following recipes is how to measure ingredients, which “takes you out of your flow.”
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In his restaurant kitchens, there are no recipe books. The cooks are shown how to make the dishes with the emphasis on technique. Then, Prisinzano evaluates their progress based on the dishes they produce and offers constructive feedback. “That’s how I taught everyone in my kitchens,” he says. “I give [the cooks] the freedom to make [the dishes] their own, which creates a little bit of a difference between all the restaurants, which I think is important.”
Prisinzano is a strong advocate for the home cook, often posting instructional cooking videos and responding to cooking questions on his social media channels in real time. “I love helping families cook for each other,” he says. “That’s the most profoundly satisfying thing, to help someone get through a family meal.”
He recommends home cooks embrace their mistakes. “You have to make mistakes in order to learn. The most valuable thing that you have in life is just going for it. The mistake is the lesson.”
Growing up, Prisinzano’s biggest influences in the kitchen were his two Italian grandmothers. “I was lucky to have two amazing cooks for grandmothers, one from Sicily and one from Naples, which was pretty amazing because those are two powerhouse areas for food.”
Because he took an interest, they passed much of their cooking knowledge on to him. “I learned at my grandmothers’ feet. From a really young age, I just thought my grandmother was a magician—both of them—because of what they could do in the kitchen, and how happy they made us, and how happy they made everyone. They were true Italian matriarchs. So I saw the power of that, to get the family around the table. Everyone always wanted to eat with them, everyone always wanted to be around them. I saw that as a rich life. So from a very young age I started working with them.”
At age 12 Prisinzano traveled with his grandmother from New York to his late grandfather’s farm in Puglia, Italy. “Everything about that trip got into my life,” he says. “I was eating at people’s houses, and they’d ask me if I wanted to have some chicken. Then the old lady goes outside, grabs the chicken, kills the thing right in front of me, dips it in hot water, plucks the thing, and makes it for you. You don’t see that in Long Island in 1978! She’s making her own cheese, she has this self-sufficient little farm, she’s cooking for her family. The soulfulness of that just blew my mind. I realized how proud I was to be Italian and to be from those types of people. And it’s been really a steady theme throughout my life.”
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America at age 20, Prisinzano began working in high-end restaurants in New York. But when it eventually came time to open his first restaurant, Frank (a southern Italian trattoria), in June of 1998, he made a conscious decision to move away from fine dining. “I said, ‘I’m not doing any of that food. I’m doing my food, the food that I eat every single day, because I know we’re gonna crush it with that food.’”
Shortly after opening, New York Times food critic Eric Asimov visited the restaurant. “He came in to eat and he lit us up like a Christmas tree. And after that it was insane,” says Prisinzano. By September, the cozy 23-seat restaurant was serving 200 meals on Saturday nights.
Prisinzano and his restaurants have become known for his version of spaghetti limone, a simple dish of pasta with lemon sauce famous on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, though his version is unlike anything he’s eaten there before.
“I created [this version] because the limone dishes I’ve had on the Amalfi Coast are actually made with cream, and I didn’t like it that way. I thought it was too heavy. So I started playing around with making a pasta water and butter emulsion with the spaghetti in the pot. The spaghetti acts as a whisk, and it creates an actual beurre blanc—which is a French sauce—but it beautifully coats the noodles.”
How to Make Frank Prisinzano’s Spaghetti Limone
At his Manhattan loft, Prisinzano fills a skinny copper spaghetti pot with water and sets it on the stove. He maneuvers his way around the butcher block island retrieving ingredients.
He removes a pint jar of bright-yellow raw milk butter from the fridge and extracts half its contents with a fork in large, irregular shards. Two aromatic and dimpled Amalfi lemons, slightly sweeter than traditional lemons. A brick-size wedge of winter Parmigiano-Reggiano, buttery and mild.
When the water reaches a boil, he throws in a fistful of gray sea salt. He grabs a handful of spaghetti from a jar in the pantry—enough for about four servings—and waves it like a conductor’s baton as he emphasizes points about simple combinations and using the best possible products.
He drops the spaghetti into the water. “Going for al dente?” I ask. “Al dente or I break your legs,” he says with a smirk and a thick New York accent.
He grabs a traditional four-sided box grater and ignores the two most commonly used sides for creating large and small shreds of cheese. Shreds of those sizes would establish too much dominance over the delicate, fine-tuned nature of this dish.
Instead, he opts for the seldom-used bumpy side of the box grater, the side you’re never quite sure what to do with. Holding the grater and Parmigiano high over the butcher-block counter, he works the cheese in a light circular pattern over the jagged metal bumps. Contact between cheese and metal is so delicate that they barely seem to touch. The dispatched cheese falls like powdery snow onto the bench. He calls it “parm dust.”
When the pasta is just shy of al dente, Prisinzano adds a ladleful of the pasta cooking water to a Dutch oven, just enough to coat the bottom and “warm the pot.” The final steps of the dish come together off the heat, so a warmed vessel is essential. Using tongs, he transfers the wet pasta to the shallow water in the Dutch oven. He cuts the lemons in half, squeezes three of the halves through a fine-mesh strainer into the pasta, and then throws in the spent lemon halves.
The cold butter goes in next. “Some people like it with more butter and some like it with less butter; some people like it with more lemon and some like less lemon. That’s your personal approach to it.”
He grabs a well-worn wooden spoon and begins vigorously stirring the pasta. As the lemon halves slap against the side of the pot, they release their aroma and lightly perfume the pasta. Straight lemon zest would be too strong for this dish.
As it whips around the pot, Prisinzano reiterates his point about the spaghetti playing the part of whisk to help the butter emulsify with the pasta water and lemon juice. After a minute of stirring, and when nearly all the butter is melted, he tilts the pot to the side to allow the pastel yellow sauce to pool. He adds a dash more water and stirs again.
He serves up two portions of spaghetti limone in shallow bowls, each with a spent lemon half on the side and a splash of sauce from the pot. He tops the pasta with a small mountain of Parm dust. “I put the cheese on top, not in it. So as you’re eating it, some of it’s got cheese, some of the cheese falls into the sauce. It’s a very special experience because as you’re actually twirling the spaghetti, it’s designing your bite.”
The flavor is distinctly lemony, but balanced with the richness of the butter. The saltiness of the Parmigiano walks in at just the right moments. Prisinzano samples his work. “Complicated simplicity. That’s our mantra.”