Last October, East Village restaurateur Frank Prisinzano (Frank Restaurant, Lil Frankie's, Supper) teamed up with his childhood friend, longtime marketing executive Rob DeFlorio, in opening a new concept on the Lower East Side called Sauce. With this new project, Prisinzano and DeFlorio?whose Queens families go back 60 years?are working to create a model for sustainable, fast Italian food that can be reproduced anywhere, while also butchering two full cows in-house (along with pigs and whatever else they can get) every week. Eater recently talked to the pair about how the first year at Sauce, their video content, and their plans for expansion over the next year and beyond.
At what point did you start talking about this project? Frank: I would say it was about the Summer of 2010. Rob: Yeah it was about a year before we broke ground.
Why this concept? Frank: The idea behind the concept was that there are no really good, successful, quick Italian food concepts out there. I started thinking, well, who better to do it than someone who's been doing inexpensive Italian food for 14 years? And with the way the food system is completely broken, I started looking at concepts like Chipotle and some other places that were kind of pushing back against that. I wanted to do that with Italian food. And then the meat came into the picture, because I was very unhappy with what was happening with the quality of the meat. So I was thinking I could do an Italian nose-to-tail concept here very easily, because I know I can get rid of all the scraps.
And I was also thinking that when I first opened Frank I could have opened maybe 15 of them within a couple of years. But I never wanted to bastardize that, because those are my family recipes and they're very sacred to me. So I said, well what would I take national? And then I started talking to Rob, because I'm not a marketing guy, you know what I'm saying? I'm a neighborhood guy. This is my audience here [in the restaurant]. If I'm going to do something like that, I need a partner that understands marketing sauces and marketing look and feel, labeling, logos, and that's when I came to him with a project that interested me.
You always planned to go national? Rob: That's part of the future of the place, and even if you're not planning it for quite a few years, the best way to do that is to keep it in mind from the beginning. Trying to rebuild things and re-engineer them to take them national, when you never gave that a thought, is always more difficult. We're not doing that immediately by any stretch of the imagination?we're at one year, so we're still trying to perfect this.
So you're not opening another one in LA tomorrow? Rob [Laughs] No, no. Some people would, but we're trying to perfect the concept. Frank: You know, we've got this one, we get it going, we get it in people's minds, and then we'll start to branch out with little satellite operations. Little outlets. Rob: Yeah, little outlets. They could be shacks, food carts, windows?we haven't decided which way to do that, but we know that we could branch this out eventually.
But the one thing I think you've got to clarify is that Frank is full of ideas, and Sauce ended up being kind of an amalgamation of a number of ideas of his. It's interesting that we have these ideas but we're not exactly sure which way we're going to branch out when we do it. But we have the components, the three key elements of it have worked really well from Day One: really good food, at a really good price, in a really good atmosphere. Everything else we're learning as we go along.
How did opening go, as you tried to execute all of that big picture stuff? Frank: Well, I'm a well-known restaurateur at this point, so I know inevitably and unfortunately that I'm going to get slammed pretty much right from the get-go. That's harder to manage than the opposite situation from a logistic standpoint. We refused to give anyone an exclusive on when we were going to open, so that helped us a lot. I told Rob, "One of these days we're going to open, and you're not going to know until a few hours before because that's the day I'm happy with it." But one thing I have to throw in is that I had never done a nose-to-tail concept before, and on top of that I'm doing nose-to-tail steers and pigs, so I got both of them coming in. I had to play with that a lot and figure out how to get rid of everything, right down to where to position something I want to move on the menu. So there was so much to figure out that I didn't want to be completely blasted.
How did people take to the concept early on? Rob: There were a lot of positive reactions right away. Because those three elements were in place, people came in and said, "Hey, the food's pretty good and the prices are insane." Frank: And also, I was here a lot. It was a chance to see me, and a lot of my regulars from the other restaurants came and it was kind of a novelty. There was a lot of positive energy here. I mean, I love opening restaurants. There's nothing more fun than showcasing everything you've been working on. This became kind of like a forum for all of that to kind of be rejuvenated. So that was really very rewarding.
Rob: And in a lot of ways it's like that even a year later. Frank is here a lot at night. It's not because he's not paying attention to the other places, those places are immensely successful, have an unbelievably loyal following, and are as vital as they were the day they opened, or even more so. It takes years to establish that. So he can check in on those, but he's here all the time. And everyone knows that, so they want to come in and see Frank.
Talk to me about your webseries. How does that fit into what you're doing with Sauce? Frank: From the beginning this concept also had another element to it, which we haven't gotten to: the studio. That was always built to be a food network. Much like I did East Village Radio out in front of Lil' Frankies, this booth is exactly that, but for cooking shows. We were going to grow it out organically, and that's what's happening. I look at this like I am trying to develop a local, sustainable fast food Italian model, put it on media so you can see it and copy it, please. So the process of me figuring it out is newsworthy. We're shitting content every day in this place.
And that's another thing. I haven't had a chance to do new food, new Italian food, since I opened up Supper. So that's 10 years ago. I can't change the other menus really. I can add something here and there, but fuggedaboutit it, I can't really change anything. So here I'm overjoyed because I get to create Italian again, and why not put it on television? That's what the series are about. We're beginning with my travels because that's what made the most sense. I've been going [to Italy] since I was a kid, and I go three times a year now and that's access that nobody has. We were able to convince Moretti to come on this year, so they sponsored the first season, and now they're talking very seriously about sponsoring our second season.
What are you most proud of from the last year? Frank: I'm the most proud of our relationship, which has really grown so much and we feed off each other very well. We plug holes naturally. We never have discussions about who's going to do what. We just do it. That's unprecedented. Rob: Our families are ecstatic. They're so supportive. They love the fact that the boys are working together, they're proud of their boys, it's like a family dream. Frank: There's so much that has to be done here before this is going to be extremely profitable. There's so many pieces that have to fit into the place. [But] we're both in a position that we can put this kind of energy into something like this and hit the absolute home run. I'm only swinging for the fences with this place, both of us are.
Rob:I think one of the things I'm really most proud of here, too, is the quality and the nature of the food. It's all down to Frank and the work he's been doing. But we've created an environment here where Frank can be as creative as he wants. We have some staples here that people love. And we do some things here in the quality of the food?I mean, not that many people serve meatballs with grass fed beef. It's just not that economical. Anyone always says, "These are the best meatballs I've ever had," well they should be. Frank: It's the best meat I've ever used.
All that big picture stuff aside, what are the plans for the next year? Rob: If I was going to tip our hand a little bit, I'd say there are three things we're focusing on for the next year. One is building our two brands. One brand is Sauce, the other brand is Frank. They're inextricably linked, but they're still two brands, you know? Frank: I've never done [media] stuff like this, but now we're trying to establish a model for something, and I need to be the face of it if I'm going to be honest about it. It's important because I'm upset about where we are nationally with food. I feel like it's my responsibility to push back and get involved, and I don't really see any other Italian chefs doing it. That leaves me to be the ambassador of it, so that's why the change.
Rob: The second thing of the one year plan is to get the studio up and running. Because right now it is fully operational but we haven't rigged it with all the sight, sound, and motion equipment that we need, which is a considerable investment to do it right. Then we'll do our own scripts?we're doing our own scripts right now, but it's outside of Sauce. And also make some side money, on people wanting to rent this.
But then the third thing is, in one year, our first satellite experiment, whatever it's going to be. Frank: Yeah, we'll have one open within a year. Rob: I really want a food truck with a window that's in a cart that we roll around. I can't decide which it's going to be. Frank: I sent him an email one day, "Fuck food trucks, let's make pushcarts. Let's make old-fashioned pushcarts, the really cool ones." We could just have them in the back of the truck and drop 'em at any event and have them ready to go. Rob: We have to look at this city. You know, where's the best place to open up the first outpost? Do you go to the Upper West Side? Do you go down to Battery Park? Do you choose a place that maybe is starved for something like this, or maybe where you know it's already accepted? So we haven't thought about it yet, and we haven't thought what form it's going to be, but for that first satellite idea, we'd love to try to get that out in a year's time.
Does it feel like a year? Rob: It either feels like two minutes, or it feels like 10 years. Frank: For me, it's really three years. Because I built this place myself, I laid it out myself. There's no architect, no designer. There's only me and my foreman George who did all the metal work, all the woodwork. So does it feel like a year? The year since we've been open went very quickly. But I've been on this for [a while], and I've been dreaming about this for probably five years. So that's why it feels longer than that.
· All Coverage of Sauce [~ENY~]