The fat lady at the next table adjusts her Jackie O sunglasses, smoothes a hand through her piled-up nest of blond, fiddles with her sequined top. A young couple clinks glasses over a plate of roasted peppers. Giovanni, the god, folds his cell phone and glides back to the piano to perform another round Cole Porter to Coldplay. He's so beautiful you have to look at him sidelong; it's like staring at the sun. There's a scuffle going on at another table over a check nobody wants to pay it. "I'm not gonna pay for your fuckin' drinks," snarls one guy at his pal. Their wives sit in silence, eyes unfocused, looking into the near distance at nothing. He's wearing an absurdly festive tropical shirt, reds and greens, parrots and palm trees, a happy-go-lucky shirt; but his grey hair is clipped close, like a Marine, and he's got the world's meanest eyes. Weirdly, his mates seem nonplused by the obscenities. He's always been this way, tighter than a gnat's chuff whatcha gonna do with him?
And over there, gramps is digging into the best plate of vongole oreganato he's tasted since 1957, tipping them right from the shell into his maw. To say nothing of the calamari, the scungilli!
We're at Frankie's Pier 5. And we don't want to be anywhere else.
We've sat a little while over just a bottle of water; it's a busy Saturday night. At some point our waiter dances over and presents the menu with a special flourish, part magician, part courtier. He's intent, middle-aged, looking down at us over the rims of his glasses, sizing us up: What's it gonna be a bowl of soup and they'll split the insalata? Or does this lady know how to eat?
She does. And tonight she's going to start with the frutti di mare ($11.95) and a cold vodka martini, per favore.
We order frutti di mare, vongole al forno ($8.95). The penne fileto ($15.95). And veal brasciola ($20.95) with Frank Perrone's top-secret special "rugu" sauce. The chicken Marsala ($18.95). A plate of escarole ($5.50) and another plate of sautéed mushrooms ($6.95). A half bottle of Ruffino Chianti ($25) from that Wine Spectator Award-winning list is going to taste just fine with all of it. And let's take it slow, please, we're in no rush tonight...
The Perrones have had the Hallandale Beach Italian restaurant business cornered for about 35 years. Frank Perrone's father Luigi emigrated from Italy in 1960, went to work at Doria's as a dishwasher, and by 1971 had saved enough to bring over his wife and all nine kids. Luigi and brother Dominick eventually leased Doria's, hired practically the whole family to run it brothers-in-law, sons, daughters all working the line or waiting tables and turned it into one of Hallandale Beach's classic success stories. The name, the menu, the location have changed a few times over the years, but the line from Doria's to Frankie's Pier 5 is unbroken. Family still runs the place. Frank's son Louis sees to the front of the house while Frank works the kitchen it's Louis who'll find you a table and stop by later to ask how you liked the zuppa di pesce.
Four years ago, they moved into the building they now occupy. There's no pier anywhere in this vicinity, but there's a handsome red-painted facade with double arches leading to an entrance, and sprightly valets hopping into Fords and Mercedeses. Inside, two pale yellow salons on either side of the bar are hung with paintings, plain tables are covered with a double layer of the softest linen, and most have a view of the piano.
Depending on your appetite, this can be a good thing or a bad thing, because the guy at the piano has a voice as ethereally sweet as the whipped cream on that piece of chocolate cake the fat lady's eating. And he's more delicious looking even than the beautiful plate of saltimbocca heading for another table. Now he's singing Bee Gees and Sinatra in his angel voice, with perfect phrasing, or getting up for a break, moving through the room with the fluid stride of a dark leopard. But to this crowd, murmuring and bickering over their vermicelli, he's invisible.
And truly, that's what good food will do to you, isn't it? You know you're in the right place when the salmon Livornese trumps sex. The siren song of lobster fra diavolo erects an invisible field that repels all other forces. It was inevitable that we found our full energies refocused on the plate of frutti di mare and clams al forno that soon arrived, the latter wafting clouds of herb-scented steam and still sizzling under their blankets of bread crumbs. On the cold plate, little dark whelks, with their condensed, intense flavor, and tiny whole squid and shrimp were tossed with nothing more than celery, garlic, lemon, olive oil; they needed little else. This was the lightest and freshest and chewiest of antipasti, a breath of sea air to stimulate the palate. A basket of focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary, gritty semolina coating its bottom, and crisply crusted Italian bread were great for mopping up stray oils and sauces, or to slather with the sweet butter softening in its porcelain dish.
Empty plates were whisked away. There's a fairly foolproof system at work here, no doubt developed over 35 years of business. In a little while a food runner brought out our penne: smooth, dense tubes of al dente pasta smothered in a balanced sauce composed of prosciutto, sautéed onions, red wine, tomatoes, and fresh leaves of basil. It's a simple, hearty dish with just the right combination of chewy texture (the pasta, the prosciutto) played off against a bit of bite from the tomatoes and wine. It was perfect. You could live on it indefinitely. Split between two of us, it was more than enough for a primi piatti. The big balding guy at a corner table, his extended family arrayed around him like minor moons around a capacious planet, probably could have eaten the full serving, but not us.
Three tables over, the two dudes still hadn't decided who was paying for what. They'd lowered their voices a notch, but they were scrutinizing the bill. Again. Their wives were applying lipstick.
Now came the brasciola di vitello, a Sunday specialty beloved by generations of Italian-Americans. Everybody's grandma had her own recipe; this one probably developed over many generations of old ladies was made with veal pounded thin, rolled up with prosciutto, parmesan, and mortadella, the Bolognese sausage studded with cubes of pork fat and anise and pistachios. Frank Perrone adds his secret "rugu" sauce, and you have something very fine indeed, with great mouth feel and a satisfying heaviness that lets you know you've really eaten. My partner had a moist, thick pork chop with scarpariello sauce black olives, pepperoncini, mushrooms, onions, garlic, wine, vinegar and get this sweet, spicy Italian sausages. Would you like some pork with your pork? Yes indeed we would. The pepperoncini lent heat and sour to the pork juices and wine, and I have to say this might be my new favorite dish, possibly but not definitively edging out the chicken livers with hot peppers over at Ruggero's in Lauderdale. I'd be happy to judge a cook-off any time.
As for the sides: I think I've had better sautéed escarole; the garlic in it was burnt. And the mushrooms were oversalted. But I'm not holding this against them.
We ordered panna cotta ($5.50) for dessert. Our waiter gently informed us they'd used the last of the fresh berries. Crème brûlée instead? We hesitated. My mate doesn't like crème brûlée. And I'm frankly sick of finding it on every menu from here to Poughkeepsie. But as I looked up at him, there was something like a twinkle in his eye maybe it was the reflection on his lenses? And the slightest nod, like the guy was tipping me off on a sure thing. So crème brûlée it was. And I'll tell you, friends, the big round dessert we were served, with its caramelized, subtly bitter crust and textured, vanilla-infused pudding, was something I will dream of with pleasure and longing for many nights. I'm certain I've never tasted better.
The beautiful piano man was singing, Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane... I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain. The table of four had finally settled the score on their bill; the two wives wrapped arms around each other's waists as they sauntered, whispering and giggling, toward the door. Brothers? Only family would act out publicly at such volume. I wondered what kinds of similar battles had been waged in the Perrones' kitchen over 30 years, between brothers, between fathers and sons, between wives and husbands. Whatever their differences might have been, this family stuck it out and kept the peace. It's our great good fortune that they did.