Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Dining à la Groucho Marx

At an East Village Southern Italian

“This way, please.” The friendly young maître’d at Frank in the East Village was standing on the sidewalk and motioned me inside.

Not so fast. A red-faced waiter charged out the door, brandishing a plate of spaghetti. I jumped aside in the nick of time and then cautiously made my way into the dining room.

Eating at Frank is like being caught in the middle of the famous cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera , in which more and more people keep pouring through the door as Groucho tries to order food. (“Steward! Make that three hard-boiled eggs and some roast beef, rare, medium, well-done and over-done …. “)

“It’s a little cramped in here, I’m afraid,” said the manager, a masterful understatement. He unfolded a chair and wedged it between a glass-fronted cabinet and a teensy Formica table decorated with cheery yellow daisies. Three of us, holding our breath, just managed to squeeze in (this was, of course, before we’d finished a bowl of “Grandma Carmela’s rigatoni with meatballs”). If a waiter had needed a wine glass from the cupboard behind me, half the room would’ve had to get up. The view from my seat was of the back of a man who had the girth of Henry VIII and was sporting a black XXL T-shirt that bore the legend: “Shuck me, Suck Me, Acme Oyster Bar, New Orleans.”

There are no oysters on the menu at Frank, but there’s mozzarella di buffala flown in from Naples, wonderful homemade pasta, splendid roast chicken and salads made with the freshest ingredients.

The restaurant’s two small storefront rooms, each with its own street entrance, aren’t much larger than Groucho’s stateroom. A bar takes up half the space in one dining room, an open kitchen in the one next-door. Both rooms have faded yellow pressed-tin ceilings hung with small, genteel Venetian glass chandeliers. Specials are chalked on a blackboard, wine bottles are lined up on shelves and racks (or anywhere where there’s space), and the whole place is cluttered with bric-a-brac, jugs and vases. A beat-up, gilt-framed reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is tilted over the entrance to the bathroom. Every so often, there’s an exciting “whoosh” from the kitchen as a sheet of flames leaps up from a pan and dies down again. The unidentifiable pop music is deafening. Frank may be short on comfort, but it certainly has atmosphere.

I wouldn’t have come here at all had a friend not asked me to find a restaurant in the East Village where eight of us could eat before a concert one night (Frank does not take reservations, and I hate to wait in line). The restaurant’s owner, Franki Prisinzano, has two other places in the East Village, Lil’ Frankie’s Pizza and a new restaurant called Supper. I called Supper first. The reception was gruff. “We don’t take reservations. First come, first served,” I was told. “Ain’t nothing I can do about it-those are the rules.” But Frank makes an exception for eight or more. “You got a cell?” asked the man who booked the table. “Give me the number so I can call to make sure you’re on your way.”

There was already a line in the street outside when we arrived (in the winter, they have a huge heater there to warm the people waiting). Behind the bar is a refectory table, and part of it had been set aside for the eight of us. Even so, we weren’t allowed to sit down “until all of our party was present and complete,” as the hostess told us firmly with a sunny smile. “Those are the rules.” By the time we had ordered a drink at the bar, of course, the others had arrived. That was when I discovered that Frank accepts cash only.

The food is not dirt-cheap, with main courses costing between $9.95 and $22.95. The restaurant boasts a fine, solid Italian wine list, but it’s hardly dirt-cheap, either. There are bottles on it priced at $200. Who walks around with cash like that in their pocket?

Despite these annoying details, Frank is an appealing restaurant, not just for its quirky atmosphere, but for the good, Southern Italian food that’s served in hearty portions. Begin dinner with an order of grilled garlic bread-thick sourdough wedges that come topped with melted cheese. It’s great with a glass of Chianti. The salads are big enough to feed two or more. Shaved fennel salad with olive oil and Parmesan, though it needed salt, was a good dish to pass around the table and nibble on. The roasted beet salad with arugula and goat cheese packed plenty of flavor, as did a lively end-of-summer salad made with avocado slices, corn, tomatoes and chopped Bibb lettuce. Frank does straightforward dishes very well, like beef carpaccio with slivered Parmesan and arugula, or silken slices of prosciutto with perfectly ripe melon.

The handmade ravioli of the day-light, airy pillows of dough with a cheese filling in a cream sauce-was superb. Handmade gnocchi had pretty much disintegrated into the sauce (as is its wont), but the dish did have a strong tomato flavor, laced with basil and Parmesan. Grandma Carmela’s rigatoni, served with tiny meatballs in tomato sauce, pulls no punches. And if black spaghetti with sautéed calamari is on the list of specials, order it. It was excellent, done with a lighter hand than some of the other pastas.

“Uncle Michael’s spiced meatloaf” is the size of a bowling ball and comes with gravy and gratin potatoes. As impressive as it looked, it was dry. Friends of mine have been urging me to try Frank’s roast chicken. With its crusty, rosemary-scented skin, it is, indeed, “far better than anything you’d get in a fancy restaurant,” if a trifle salty, and was accompanied by olives, mashed potatoes and cooked tomatoes. The seared salmon filet, while nothing out of the ordinary, is beautifully cooked with lemon, capers, sage and arugula.

Desserts include a perfectly pleasant tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake and a large bowl of peach sorbet that feeds four.

Despite the waiting, the noise and the cash-only policy, I like Frank. The waiters and waitresses are exceedingly nice and the food is good. I called a friend who dined with me there on one of my visits. “If I lived around the corner, I’d go there once in a while, at an off-hour when you don’t have to wait,” he said. “But being a New Yorker, I can’t stand the noise. It’s the sort of place you’d look forward to coming to if you lived in, say, Burlington, Vt.”