Apr 30th '20

Frank Prisinzano

From The Magazine

Frank Prisinzano, New York-based restauranteur and founder of East Village Radio, understands what people want. From Puglia’s finest burrata to America’s best rock-and-roll music, the tastemaker knows exactly what to serve.

jason crombie: You’re New York born and bred, right?

frank prisinzano: I was born in Queens.

jc: And when did you open your first spot?

fp: I opened about my first place, Frank, in 1998. I took the lease in March and opened the restaurant in June. Then I expanded Frank—I added the bar next store, which we call Vera Bar, after my grandmother. Then we took Lil’ Frankie’s, what you see here, put the oven in and started making pizzas. Then I opened Supper right after. I actually signed the leases on Lil’ Frankie’s and Supper right before 9/11, so it was pretty crazy. Frank actually got busier after that because they closed the streets from 14th Street all the way down, so you couldn’t even drive a car. And since it’s a homey neighborhood, I guess people felt more comfortable there, because it was such a hard time for New York. So business went up like 20 percent. I hate to say it, but my business went up. I was very scared that I was going to have a hard time paying for these two spaces, but everything worked out.

I opened up Lil’ Frankie’s in January of 2002, and I opened up Supper in April of 2002. Then I added the backroom, then I added the bar at Supper, then I started East Village Radio. After that, I expanded and took the two stores next to here and broke through the wall and added the full kitchen and the full bar at East Village Radio over there. Then I opened up Mudspot on 9th Street with the Mud Coffee guys. Then I opened up Way, which is a French Vietnamese restaurant in the West Village on Charles and Bleecker. I was the chef. I did all the food.

jc: Is that your background? Did you cook at other restaurants before you started opening restaurants?

fp: I can cook anything. I started working when I was thirteen years old at a pizzeria—that was my first job. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and before that I was working with my grandmothers cooking all of our meals—Thanksgiving, or whatnot. I was very interested in food. My grandmothers had a lot of family traditions and recipes, and since I was one of the only kids, I was always by their sides. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been cooking and I’ve been around food.

jc: How did you get started with East Village Radio?

fp: I wanted to give something back to the neighborhood. I had just opened up Lil’ Frankie’s and Supper, and both places had a line out the door, an hour-and-a-half wait. So I felt like I wanted to give something back to the neighborhood since a lot of the music scene was moving out to Brooklyn. I always thought that the East Village needed its own radio station, so we started a pirated radio station up in my office on 88.1. Then a regular client here at Lil’ Frankie’s caught wind of what I was doing, and he happened to write pieces for the NY Times. So he called me and said, “Hey, what’s going on with this radio station?” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I was trying to play it down, and he was like, “Look man, I know about it. I’m going to write about it.” And I was like, “Dude, you’re going to close me down. You write about it and you’re going to close us down.” I was like, “Please don’t write anything.” And he’s like, “It’s really newsworthy; it’s going to be on the cover of the Sunday Metro Section.”

jc: So you think you’re going to jail.

fp: A week later we get a cease and desist from the FCC, a $10,000 fine, possible imprisonment, and confiscation of all equipment. So I hire an attorney and he says, “You better pull the plug out right away.” He goes, “You don’t even know what you’re getting into right now. You’re dealing with the federal government here. You don’t understand. They’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks.”

jc: How long ago was this?

fp: This was in 2003. It cost me about $12,000 back then to start the station with all the equipment and everything else. We set the office up, we got the turntables, we had everything set up at the back of my office.

jc: Were you the first DJ up there?

fp: I was one of the first DJs up there, myself and the other co-creator, his name is Jorge DoCouto. We did it together basically. He did all the work, I supplied the money, and when we launched it at 88.1. I was driving around in my Range Rover, and he’s like, “Tune into 88.1.” I tuned in, and he was talking to me over the radio.

jc: That’s amazing.

fp: I was like, “Perfect.” Then we fucking launched it.

jc: You know Pete Ferraro, Head of Programming, got me in to try out for a show. It didn’t work. Me and my friend Alex Burt got in there, but it didn’t work. We blew it big time.

fp: You know, it’s a serious thing.

jc: I thought we’d piss it in, but radio is really difficult.

fp: It’s very hard to do. I had a show for the first four years. I had Fridays from 8 to 10, and I gave it up, because Mark Ronson wanted a show and he could only do that slot. And I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll give it to Mark.” I was getting tired of doing it anyway. I didn’t have the time to be digging in crates. I had pretty much played everything that I wanted to play at that point. I was going to have to start playing things over again. I was like, “What am I going to do? I’m out of music.” And I couldn’t really go hunting like a lot of these guys do. I just don’t have the time, so I gave Mark my slot and about a year later, we did the five-year anniversary down at South Street Seaport. We had Osiris, we had KRS-One, we had Flying Lotus. It was fucking amazing. I hired Pete to come in and take the station over and make it serious, because we were kind of playing around up until then. It was like a college station almost, but we had a lot of great DJs and we had a lot of great shows. We had a lot of listeners, but we kind of changed gears at that point. As soon as I took these two spaces over here, that’s when we got the FCC’s cease and desist, so I just put it in the storefront and went Internet only. We waited for the Internet to catch up, and it finally did three years later.

jc: How did the Chances with Wolves guys end up on EVR?

fp: Well, we had a waiting list for shows on EVR. They came in and tried out, and we loved them. That was it.

jc: I love that show, everyone does. It’s amazing. Have people who’ve worked at your restaurants gone on to open their own spots in the city?

fp: A lot of people who’ve worked for me have, and I’ve helped them. I’ve been kind of like a mentor to a lot of people. Mikey Chernoff opened up The Meatball Shop. He worked for me over at Frank for about eight years as a bartender. Thiru opened up a place called Dino in Fort Greene, which is like a very close copy of what I did at Frank Restaurant. He used to be the manager of Frank Restaurant. There are a couple more. I’ve had a lot of employees.

jc: I’ve been coming to Lil’ Frankie’s for about ten years now, and one of the things I love most is the music you play here, also the burrata. Wait, where do you guys get that burrata? It’s insane.

fp: Well, that’s something that’s very personal to me, because I brought that burrata in myself. I connected my cheese guys with this guy in Puglia that I knew, and that’s the cheese that we have. So we have the best burrata that I’ve ever had. It’s flown in from Puglia every Wednesday afternoon. We usually have it by Wednesday night, Thursday morning. So it’s super fresh, and by Saturdays it’s gone.

jc: It’s so good.

fp: We go through about twelve cases at each location at this point. That’s almost 300 burratas at each location.

jc: Wow. Anyway, so I’ll here, and I’ll be eating the best burrata in the city, but I’ll also be listening to death metal. That’s the best thing about this place.

fp: Well, this has always been my rock-and-roll pizzeria. That’s what I wanted it to be. We don’t take no for an answer when it comes to that. If it gets too loud, I’m sorry, but that’s what we do here. We apologize and try to move them away from the speaker if we can, but we’re not turning the music down.

jc: I think that speaks volumes about the food, when you look around the restaurant and see all these people in their 60s, 70s, and Gorgoroth is blasting away.

fp: And they’re hating it, but they’re there anyway.

jc: They put up with it because the food’s amazing. That’s the trade off.

fp: I always look for a story. You always want to give people something to talk about when they leave the restaurant. It doesn’t matter what it is sometimes, just something that’s going to stick with them. That’s one thing that always sticks with people—we play great music. We can’t believe that we get away with it, and that’s cool.

jc: Yeah, that’s great. Tell me about Sauce.

fp: Sauce opened up about two years ago. It’s more of a national concept. I’m going to be taking it across the entire country. I’m going to start smaller versions of Sauce, which we call Sauce Satellites. We’ll probably have one open this year. It’s going to be kind of like a Chipotle version of Sauce where you can come in, you wait in line, get your food, sit down, and eat. Honestly, if I could open up Frank again now, it would be Sauce. I could’ve opened ten Franks when I first opened—I was making a shit ton of money, everything was going great, but I didn’t want to bastardize the place. I felt like it was a unique place with a very unique concept, and it was my parents and my grandparents’ traditional dishes, so I didn’t want to bastardize that. I didn’t want to open anymore of them, so I opened up Lil’ Frankie’s and Supper instead.

I wanted to keep doing new concepts, because that’s how I am. I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. As I said, I can see that there’s a big need for high-quality, inexpensive, quick Italian food. If you see the choices you have—Famiglia, which you see in some airports, it’s fucking animal. Sbarro’s is terrible. It’s things that have been sitting there forever, it’s dry, and the quality’s horrible. So there’s really no Italian concept that’s doing something like a Shake Shack, so I thought, who better to do it than me? I’ve been doing expensive Italian food for the past sixteen years here in New York. So the idea of Sauce is that we use all grass-fed meats, all grass-fed grade finish, we use the whole animal. We make soap, we use the fat, we use everything. It’s a very sustainable project, and we’re also creating beef supply chains for some of these small farmers in upstate New York, because they don’t have anywhere to sell their meet. So it’s also a conscious decision to just push back against what’s happening with fast food.

I love my job, and my job happens to be traveling, eating, and drinking, so who the fuck wouldn’t like that?

jc: That’s awesome. What about your Internet show?

fp: I have a show called Sauce’d that I’ve been doing—we’re about to release the third season. I was in Puglia for the third season. Basically this is what I always do anyways. I go to Italy three or four times a year to eat and hang out with my friends who are wine makers, pizza makers. I do this all the time.

jc: Is that like your vacation time?

fp: That’s basically my vacation time. I’m about to leave for six weeks for Italy, and that’s what I’m going to be doing.

jc: Chilling out and tasting wine?

fp: Chilling out, eating, drinking, and hanging out. I’m always working when I’m in Italy, but of course I love my job, and my job happens to be traveling, eating, and drinking, so who the fuck wouldn’t like that?■