Al Dente & Vinyl or I’ll Break Your Legs: Chef Frank Prisinzano's Perfect Quarantine Cooking Soundtrack

Frank Prisinzano
Courtesy Photo

Frank Prisinzano

Frank Prisinzano's three restaurants -- Frank, Lil Frankie’s and Supper -- all reside within a bustling ten-block radius in the East Village of New York City. They served over 1,000 people a day before the global coronavirus pandemic put a pause on serving their hearty Italian dishes to the public.

And yet, many of Prisinzano's 100,000 (and counting) Instagram followers have never seen the inside of his intimate eateries. They’re quite familiar with Prisinzano and his home kitchen, as it’s long been a treasure trove for pasta-loving at-home cooks. He’s more or less turned Instagram Live into a channel for a DIY cooking show, and his stories offer step-by-step instructions (with plenty of colorful commentary) for recreating the molten, citrusy gold of his spaghetti al limone, the lacy crackle of his crispy eggs, Supper’s sugo-soaked roast chicken and more in the comforts of their own homes. His cardinal rules: meld your flavors, especially when you’re whipping butter, pasta water and lemon into a glossy emulsion for the limone, and “al dente or I break your legs,” because overcooked pasta doesn’t fly in Cucina Prisinzano.

As restaurants, including Prisinzano's, stay shuttered in cities across the world, millions are getting better acquainted with the staples in their pantry -- and he’s all too happy to give them a beautiful meal through his tutorials.

“I can’t believe how many messages I’m getting from people -- it’s up to 50, 60 a day at this point -- where people are saying to me, ‘This has really changed my life, this is saving me during quarantine,’” he says. “It should! It’s the only solution we have, really. We’re home, what else are we gonna do? You have to eat. You can’t leave. You have to eat at least twice. You’re gonna have to do some cooking.” (He and his team are practicing what they preach: Though Frank, Lil Frankie’s and Supper have closed their dining rooms, Prisinzano's kitchens are sending meals to feed the medical professionals working tirelessly to save New Yorkers at a few of the city’s hospitals.)

For Prisinzano, that’s rarely without a soundtrack. The art of improvisation was something he picked up from rifling through his dad’s hefty collection of jazz standards as a kid, long before he worked his first job washing dishes in a pizzeria in Long Island and learned to improvise himself behind the stoves of bustling restaurant kitchens. He’s a devoted music fan -- he also is one of the founders of East Village Radio, the pirate station that used to operate a studio next door to Lil Frankie’s on 1st Ave -- and dispatches from his kitchen are often soundtracked by everything from Black Sabbath to Bill Withers and beyond. 

In the following conversation with Billboard, Prisinzano pairs some of his most beloved recipes with the perfect soundtrack, makes some recommendations for quarantine cooking playlists and explores the intense emotional connection he’s forged between music and making food for the people he loves.

You always have a soundtrack playing in the background while you’re cooking and eating. Let’s get deep: how do cooking and music relate to you? Are they intertwined?

Of course. I grew up with jazz improvisation. That’s what really saved me out on Long Island: my parents uprooted us out of Corona, Queens when I was really young, and it was really hard for me, it was a big change. The only things I really had were my father’s jazz albums. Somehow I ended up cooking as well. They’re so similar. When you’re cooking without a recipe, you’re improvising, you’re flowing, you feel that spirit within you -- you’re gonna correct the last note with the next one you’re gonna play. It’s that kind of a feeling where you see things happening in real time, but you’re almost outside your body.

That’s how I started cooking -- I had this feeling of flow from a really young age. Even when I was washing dishes, there was a tremendous amount of flow involved as well -- and you felt it. That’s what I’ve been addicted to my entire life. It’s why I collected about 3,000 jazz and blues albums right now. I just keep buying. I have two turntables in my house depending on what I’m listening to. I choose either system. I’m a little bit of a fanatic.

Flow is the name of the game in your kitchen, and you encourage people to step away from recipes, cook times and set temperatures so they work with “methods” instead. Does music help with that? How frequently are you listening to music while you cook? Does it aid the flow, or can it be a distraction?

Even if the music is not on, I can hear it when I’m cooking. You have to fall into a rhythm. You’re doing the same things over and over again, the movement. You kind of hear music, but yeah -- I’m usually listening to something. My favorite things to listen to are easy stuff. I can get real chaotic and I’ll want to hear John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme when I’m working sometimes, but only if there’s a lot of people over, if there’s a lot of frenetic energy. When I’m just here by myself, I like to listen to [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue, for instance, something that’s going to be a little more meditative.

I love that you share the secrets behind your most beloved dishes, where you can make them at home, but it doesn’t taste quite the same as it does in your restaurants.

People think you’re crazy to give everything away, but I think I’m smart! I mean, what I’m doing, I’m taking my dishes out of the restaurant and branding them inside homes where people are going to be more inclined to have it -- first of all, because they’re grateful for it, and second of all because it becomes an occasion to have it at the place where it was born. It makes them feel like they’re a part of the family.

It becomes a community, which is a really great icing on the cake for all this: the community that’s coming together around what we’re doing at the restaurants, how we treat people and handle food, how we’re respectful to the environment, we’re trying to set an example.

When you’re cooking at home and they want to make dinner more of a special event, how do you approach curating the perfect playlist for an at-home dinner party?

I’ll give you the playlist right now: I’d play the first Dire Straits [album] followed by [the band's 1979 follow-up LP] Communiqué. I would stick with that for a couple of months, and then maybe veer off of that. There’s nothing better to flow through than Mark Knopfler’s guitar, man. It’s just perfect. Whenever I want to flow in the kitchen, I’ll put those two albums on back to back.

I know that #lockdownlimone has really taken off since the global pandemic took off, and that tons of people are making it in quarantine. If we were to pair that dish with a song or an album, what would it be? 

I would choose live Thelonius Monk, maybe Live at the It Club -- that was a great album. The limone is so methodical, and it’s like a slow flow -- you’re only doing a few things, but you have to be flowing. It’s nice to have that chaos behind that simplicity. It works well together, because you’ll be listening to Monk but doing these very simple motions, which I think will compliment.

What about your sticky garlic marinara? You smash garlic up in super-hot pan before a can of roma tomatoes gets mixed into it -- I have to imagine that requires a different vibe.

We need heavy metal for that. I’d play Iron Maiden’s Killers. It’s such a big sauce: you have all those big, brash flavors. One of the charms about the sticky garlic marinara is you have raw garlic, roasted garlic, toasted garlic all in the same sauce. You have that Sicilian dried oregano that’s f--kin’ big. Then you have that really rich olive oil. It’s balls to the wall. I just think of hardcore -- I could even see punk, even the Ramones would work. Let’s say punk rock -- or, actually, the crispy egg method should get punk rock.

To contrast that, your bolognese is a sauce is low, slow and requires patience: it needs to meld in the pot for a really long time. What should we listen to while making that?

Opera, maybe Don Giovanni or something like that. It’s such a long process, and it’s also ancient and classic. I think it has to be classical, maybe Mozart. 

What about last call? Dessert’s been cleared, it’s time for bed. What’s the closing time anthem?

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” Nirvana’s version off MTV Unplugged. When you finish a meal, that sadness comes over you when the meal is over. You’re having a nice scotch. You want to have a little cry, feel some emotion. I think that’s one of the most emotional songs I’ve ever heard.

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