With FRANK pulling in some crazy press recently (a Dallas Morning News article called us “The Best Restaurant in DFW” and Modern Luxury featured us with 3 other restaurants as “Best of the City”), the pressure has been on to do MORE of them. “Why not try 8 seatings for the next one?” Jennie proposed. We had never done that before. 7 was the max. We’re never afraid of a challenge, so 8 it would be.
We’ve developed a tradition of hosting an Italian feast at FRANK every winter. While Italian is great in any season, there’s just something about the gray, dreary winter that makes you crave pasta and spicy tomato sauce and crusty bread and good red wine. Adrien, who has now become a FRANK fixture, and Jennie were sitting around tossing out menu ideas one night and The Godfather came on TV. For both of them, NOTHING is more important than The Godfather, so menu planning stopped while they watched the film…until they got to the spaghetti and meatballs scene, and they both simultaneously screamed, “FRANK GODFATHER!!!” We had long been tossing around the idea of menus inspired by our favorite films and bands, so it seemed to be a perfect fit.
The only problem was that I had never actually seen the Godfather, so as they were excitedly babbling to me about menu ideas, I was a bit lost. Until the word “Sicily” was tossed out. Because Sicily is a special place for me. My partner’s sister and mother live there. Some of my fondest travel memories are from Sicily. I adore the food, the island, the people…
So all that really remained was for me to watch The Godfather for the first time.
I know, I know…it’s pretty inexcusable that I had never seen it. One of the greatest films of all time, by most standards. So I saw it. And it was great. In fact, I felt like I had seen it before many times…it’s that good. (Or just that omnipresent in pop culture.)
We wanted the menu to both be an accurate introduction to Sicilian cuisine, and also have direct inspiration from the film, and here’s what we came up with:
For the amuse bouche, we decided to start with a dish that’s so distinctly Sicilian and is so pervasive in their culture that there’s not really anything else MORE Sicilian that you could start with. Arancini, pronounced “ah-ran-CHEE-nee.” A crispy fried ball of cheesy rice that sometimes has a nugget of meat or peas in the center. Arancini is the first thing I ever tasted in Sicily…we literally drove straight from the airport in Palermo to a gas station nearby, and I was told to go inside and get an arancini. I had no idea what to expect. The clerk pointed me to a case that looked not unlike a hot dog case, filled with giant crusty balls the size of softballs. I shelled out my 2 euros (about $3 at that time) and sank my teeth into a food memory I’ll never forget. Crunchy-crisp on the outside, sticky and gooey and rich on the inside. So filling. So fulfilling. Arancini are the hot dog of Sicily. Every gas station has them. Street carts sell them on every block. For our version, we made it considerably smaller and used wild mushrooms and white truffle to flavor the risotto on the inside, so technically it was arancini di funghi. And while we’re talking technicalities…arancini is the plural, so if you’re only eating one, you’re eating an arancino. (More on this later.) And if you’re familiar with Sicily, you know they have their own distinct language that’s similar to Italian, but not quite. So you may encounter the spelling and pronunciation “arancine” in some areas of Sicily. This is one of the more popular amuse bouches we’ve ever served at FRANK. When Jennie does her end-of-meal quiz about which course was the diners’ favorite, it’s rare for the amuse to get more than 1 vote per night, but the arancini got multiple votes every night for best dish. It was pretty freakin good:
To get things started, we served up a panzanella salad. Panzanella (“pan-zuh-NELL-uh”) is popular across much of Italy and Sicily, though it originated in Tuscany. It was a way to use up stale bread left over from the night before. The bread would sit out all night and get dry, and the next day they would toss those crusty crumbs with tomatoes and let them get a little moist, and serve it up as a salad. We made our own bread (of course) and then tore it into chunks and sauteed it in garlic olive oil until crisp. Then we tossed the chunks with a citrus vinaigrette and heirloom tomatoes, and some lovely baby beet greens from Garden Harvests Farm in Waxahachie, which is co-run by Jessica Longoria, the sister of the awesome artist Sarah Jaffe, who’s a friend of Jennie’s. Jessica delivered our beet greens in the rain the morning before our dinners began, and I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with a more lovely salad green. (Find Garden Harvests produce at Green Grocer on Greenville Ave, or Urban Acres in Oak Cliff! For those of you who seek out local produce, you know exactly how hard it is to find in the winter, so this is a gold mine!) To complete the panzanella in true Sicilian fashion, we had to have seafood on the plate. Sicily is an island, and seafood makes up the vast majority of the protein Sicilians consume. And if there’s a quintessential Sicilian seafood…it’s octopus. “Polpo.” The waters of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Sea teem with octopus, and every Sicilian grandmother has her own secret for transforming this normally tough, rubbery creature into a tender, mouth-watering masterpiece. Adrien’s favorite meat is octopus. He made it on MasterChef. In fact, it’s the very first memory he has as a child…seeing and eating octopus for the first time. Octopus makes a lot of Americans squeamish. Those brave enough to try it typically have it at a sushi restaurant, where the traditional Japanese preparation leaves it quite rubbery and tough. The Japanese appreciate this texture. But Americans typically do not, so one taste of octopus, and most Americans wash their hands of it for life. Which is a shame. Because octopus is truly an extraordinary meat in the hands of an Italian cook. I will never forget my first taste of Italian grilled octopus. I actually wept, it was so delicious. Fork tender, smokey, almost dissolving on my tongue. So we serve octopus as often as we can at FRANK, to help change people’s minds about it. And every night, people were tasting it either for the first time, or VERY reluctantly for the second time. I don’t believe a single bit of octopus was left on any plate during all 8 dinners:
Next up was something I knew had to be on the menu…caponata. (Or capunata, depending on where in Sicily you are.) The Sicilians invented this dish, and it’s served on virtually every menu at every restaurant on the island. It’s a combination of vegetables, always with eggplant as the primary, stewed in vinegar and honey. It is served both hot and cold, often as a salad or side dish, but occasionally as the main dish. And I can’t get enough of it. I’ve been perfecting my own version of caponata for years and have served it at dozens of dinner parties. Mine has eggplant, celery, onion, shallot, garlic, and tomato, seared hard in olive oil until crusty, and then combined with capers and green olives. Then the seasoning is made perfectly sweet-sour with homemade apple cider vinegar and honey, and I fold in lots of fresh basil. It’s a flavor explosion. We served it on top of a crispy polenta cake, with a 63.5 degree egg from our flock of hens. On top of the egg was a pesto of basil and pistachio, a nut which made Sicily famous across the ancient world for producing the finest pistachios (or “pistacchios”). It was a great course, lots of unique textures and flavors, and a big hit:
Boozy sorbets have become de rigueur at FRANK as a palate cleanser before the main course. And to this point, our food has been largely Sicilian, but not necessarily Godfather. So when thinking about what type of boozy sorbet could accomplish both tasks, we immediately went to brandy, since so many scenes in the film involve the drinking of it. We don’t drink enough brandy in this country. Brandy is what you get when you distill wine, and for the majority of brandies, that means grape wine. (Some classic American brandies are distilled from pear wine, cherry wine, etc.) Somewhere along the way, brandy fell out of favor, but it’s really an amazing spirit. Especially the ones that are carefully aged. We decided to pair the brandy with blood orange, for several reasons. First, because the most famous blood oranges in the world are grown in Sicily and have a protected geographic status within Europe. And second, because oranges are a major symbol within the Godfather film series. It started out as an accident. During the early shots of the film, Coppola realized that the set and lighting was very stark, dim and monochromatic. Scrambling around for a splash of color that wouldn’t interfere with the shot, oranges ended up getting placed in various scenes…and coincidentally, they seemed to appear in scenes that related to that particular character’s imminent demise or disaster. When Vito Corleone gets ambushed and shot, oranges spill all over the road around his body. Just before producer Jack Woltz’s horse gets beheaded and placed into bed with him, a large bowl of oranges sits in front of him as he converses with Tom Hagen. At the meeting with the heads of the five families, bowls of oranges line the table. (Weeks later, all the heads are murdered.) On the day of his own death, Don Vito Corleone cuts up and eats an orange with his grandson just before plummeting to the ground. Coppola mused that this was all an accident in the first film, but they loved the theme so much they continued in the subsequent films, and oranges are all over the place. So we combined the orange and the brandy into a sorbet of such high proof that we had to freeze it with dry ice to get it to solidify…and folks devoured it:
And now…the main course. In Italy, meals have a very specific structure. First comes the antipasto, or appetizers, then comes the primo or first course, which is usually pasta (but can be soup, polenta, risotto, etc.), and then comes the secondo or primary course, which is the meat course. Pasta is almost NEVER served as the main course in Italy. But we did it, because of The Godfather. There’s not much actual cooking in the Godfather, but there’s a famous scene where Clemenza is teaching Michael to make spaghetti and meatballs…because if he ends up in prison, he’ll need to know how to cook for the boys. When Coppola was adapting Mario Puzo’s book, he really wanted to keep the spaghetti and meatballs scene intact, because he wasn’t entirely certain the film would be a success. He mentioned, “If it’s a flop, at least the audience will know how to make a decent spaghetti sauce!” We knew our main course HAD to be spaghetti and meatballs, and in true FRANK fashion, everything had to be from scratch. Ever made homemade pasta for 160 people? No easy task. It took us an entire day, assisted by our lovely server Lindsay, who is also a brilliant chef herself. By the time we were done, it looked like a cocaine deal gone terribly wrong…the loft was absolutely covered in flour!
But there’s nothing lovelier than a nest of freshly-made pasta:
The sauce would have to be truly epic. Chef Jennie chose the “arrabbiata” style, which is a bold, spicy sauce of tomato, garlic, and red chili flakes. Making tomato sauce in Texas in December always necessitates turning to a can of tomatoes…it’s actually really hard to get tomatoes worthy of a sauce at ANY time of year, even when you have tomatoes in your garden and let them ripen on the vine. The best sauce tomatoes are varieties with a high flesh/low moisture content, like Romas and other plum-shaped tomatoes. You definitely don’t want a “juicy” tomato when making sauce. The big beefsteak tomatoes have too much liquid and too many seeds to make a superior sauce, and that’s what most of us raise in our gardens. Luckily, the best sauce tomatoes in the world are grown in the Campagnia region of southern Italy, near the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, and are widely available around the world…though definitely not inexpensive. I get really annoyed when people turn up their noses at a sauce made from canned tomatoes. Most canned tomatoes, in particular San Marzanos, are allowed to vine ripen and are canned immediately after picking. On the other hand, ALL supermarket tomatoes, the vast majority of Farmer’s Market tomatoes, and even many home grown tomatoes, are picked from the vine before ripening, and allowed to ripen off the vine. This results in a totally different texture, flavor, and sugar profile than if they were allowed to ripen on the vine. I can make you a far better tomato sauce from the cheapest can of tomatoes than I can from the best-looking and most expensive tomatoes in the produce section of the grocery store. Every single time. So unless you have a source for vine-ripened, just-picked plum tomatoes grown in perfect soil in a perfect climate, don’t ever EVER think less of someone for using canned tomatoes in a sauce! Incidentally, the omnipresent “Roma” tomato is a hybrid of the San Marzano variety, bred for a thicker skin (ie, easier transport from farm to market). This may have been the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had, Jennie nailed it.
Then…the meatballs. In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone has dinner with the police chief McClusky and the mafia family head Sollozzo (and ultimately murders them), as they walk into the restaurant, McClusky asks if the Italian food is good there, and Sollozzo says, “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.” Neither Jennie nor I are particularly mad for veal, and serving veal can be fraught with humanitarian concerns, just like foie gras. But we were able to source pastured veal, which is becoming more common than the old-style way of raising veal (ie, keeping the calves tied up in a barn so they can’t move around and develop firm muscle structure). Pastured veal is from calves that live their life as a normal calf does, grazing alongside its mother so it eats both grass and milk. The texture and flavor is more similar to beef than old-style veal, but honestly…old-fashioned veal wasn’t really all that great to begin with. What’s the point of going out of your way to produce a soft, bland meat? Our meatballs were half veal and half pork, and chock full of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shallots and garlic, and homemade bread crumbs. Rolled and seared rustically, and perched atop a mound of that fresh housemade pasta and tangy, spicy sauce with some fried garlic, fresh basil, and tons of cheese on top:
One of our first-time diners later confessed to me, “I was expecting FRANK to be this super fancy thing from your reviews, and when you sent me the menu the night before and I saw that the main course was spaghetti and meatballs, I almost didn’t come. But this is the BEST spaghetti and meatballs I’ve EVER had…can I have some more?!?” I really loved that moment. Jennie and I never set out to make FRANK this ultra-sophisticated restaurant serving only haute cuisine. Our mission statement says, “Our recipes are inspired by classic, traditional preparations, enriched by our collective creativity from years of travel and kitchen adventures. FRANK is food…to the point.” This cuts to the very heart of my own personal food philosophy. Some creative chef can come up with a new flavor combination and preparation, and it may be extraordinary and inspiring and incredibly delicious. But it will NEVER have the impact on another human as a recipe that comes from their family history, something they’ve eaten since they were a child, prepared by those in their life who loved them the most. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs will have more meaning to more people in this country than anything Jennie or I could dream up out of our own originality. So rather than take the route that many chefs take…forging their own unique culinary legacy…we tend to focus on taking the foods that already have a centuries-old legacy, and making them as perfect and delicious as they can possibly be. This is what sets FRANK apart from other restaurants of its type and price range. FRANK is less about FOOD and more about PEOPLE. Yes, the food is delicious. But when you read our reviews, you’ll find, time and again, that people leave the experience raving about the EXPERIENCE. The people they met and shared the evening with. And that is fostered through the food. Jennie loves to refer to FRANK as a culinary sociological experiment, rather than a restaurant. And I couldn’t agree more.
Dessert. When I posted on Facebook that we were doing a Godfather theme, virtually every comment mentioned the famous cannoli scene. Clemenza and his henchman Rocco are ordered to kill long-time friend and family chauffeur Paulie for betraying the Godfather. After Rocco shoots Paulie, he asks Clemenza what to do next, and Clemenza carelessly says, “Leave the gun…take the cannoli.” (Little known fact…the actor that played Clemenza improvised that line, it wasn’t in the script, and it became one of the most-quoted and iconic lines of the film.) So we knew we HAD to have cannoli on the menu. (Quick Italian lesson…”cannoli” is actually plural, so if you have only one, you have a “cannolo”…or, if you’re in Sicily which has its own distinct dialect, a “cannolu.” There is no such thing as “a cannoli,” that’s akin to saying, “I’m going to eat a cupcakes.”) Cannoli are an iconic Italian dessert made of a crispy shell of fried pasta dough, filled with lightly sweetened ricotta. They are a ridiculous amount of work, which is why they are typically only sold at specialty bakeries. The pasta dough is like any other pasta dough…primarily flour and eggs, but instead of adding water to hydrate the dough, you add Marsala…a sweet dessert wine from Sicily. This gives the dough a hint of sweetness and complexity. We let the dough rest for a day in the fridge to fully hydrate, then rolled it thin in the pasta machine before wrapping around specialized stainless steel cannoli molds, sealing together with egg white, and deep frying until crisp. Then you have to immediately remove the shell from the mold or it will stick to it…not an easy task when you’re dealing with a 320 degree piece of metal! Just before serving, we filled the shells with ricotta which we lightly sweetened and scented with orange zest and vanilla. And each end was dipped in pistachios, the quintessential Sicilian nut.
We were slightly concerned that a single cannolo wouldn’t be a sufficient dessert, and worried that 2 cannoli might be too much or too one-note. So we rounded out the dessert with some tiramisu, which is an often-bastardized mid afternoon snack in Italy…rarely dessert. The name “tira mi su” literally means “pick me up” and is commonly taken with coffee in the afternoon to tide you over until a late dinner. Traditionally it consists of a circle of sponge cake soaked with espresso, sandwiching layers of mascarpone cheese custard. The recipe morphed into the use of ladyfingers (finger-shaped pastries, normally of sponge cake, but occasionally of cookie-like biscotti), and some pastry chefs added liquor to the espresso for soaking them. Tiramisu has the distinction of containing a pair of ingredients that are the two most bastardized Italian words in America: espresso and mascarpone. Even some TV chefs rampantly mispronounce espresso as “expresso.” I can’t count the number of times Joe Bastianich, an Italian restaurateur whose mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs in the country, mispronounced it “expresso” while we were filming MasterChef. That’s wrong. Don’t do it. Next we come to “mascarpone,” a rich Italian cream cheese that is so mispronounced that the mispronunciation has become more common than the correct one. You often hear it bastardized as “MAR-ska-pone.” That’s wrong. Don’t do it. The ONLY acceptable pronunciation of mascarpone is:
MAHS – car – PONE – eh
In fact, ANY time you see an “e” at the end of ANY Italian word, it MUST be pronounced. Like “pappardellE” or “tagliatellE” or “provolonE” or “profiterolE.” 99.9999% of Italian words end in a vowel, which is always, without exception, pronounced. This is why Italians learning English often insert a vowel at the end of every English word that ends in a consonant. “I live-a in-a the town-a of-a Dallas-a.” So even if it doesn’t feel right at first, take a risk and properly pronounce your Italian ingredients! ESPECIALLY mascarpone. But I digress…so tiramisu is an afternoon snack in Italy, and consequently, it’s not very sweet. American pastry chefs have transformed it into the sickly-sweet dessert most of us are familiar with. But tiramisu in Italy is only faintly sweet. I make a LOT of tiramisu…it’s my partner’s favorite “dessert.” (Click HERE for my dessert version with pumpkin custard and caramel-soaked ladyfingers!) And for FRANK, we did it the old fashioned way, with circles of sponge cake (soaked in espresso and hazelnut liqueur), and delicate layers of mascarpone whipped with espresso and a hint of sweetness, dusted on top with cocoa and a touch of cinnamon. “Best tiramisu ever” was uttered a number of times, and even written on the FRANK chalkboard. A fitting duo to end Godfather FRANK:
An epic menu to celebrate an epic film. But wait…there’s a Godfather 2…and 3. Will there be FRANK encores of this theme? Only time will tell. Thanks for reading, feel free to comment below, and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss any of my excessively wordy food blogs!