sticky garlic

Making Sauce With Instagram’s Mildly Furious, Exceedingly Horny Italian Uncle

How chef Frank Prisinzano became a must-follow.

Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Photo: Christian Rodriguez

“See, your palate is like having another dick,” says the chef Frank Prisinzano, dipping his pinky in a bubbling pot of tomato sauce. “It’s so sensitive. It’s so amazing. So much pleasure comes through it when you eat. How could you not develop this muscle? I mean, you masturbate, don’t you? It’s the same thing: Use it. Think about what you’re tasting. Stay lucid.”

Frank — calling him by anything other than his first name would feel wrong — and I are standing in the kitchen of his enormous Noho loft, decorated with a drum set, dozens of stainless-steel pots and pans, a massively powerful restaurant-caliber range, perhaps 1 million boxes of pasta, and a wooden swing that hangs from the impossibly high ceiling. “I have a fucking swing in my apartment,” Frank says, when I ask about it, “because I like to swing.”

The 54-year-old chef and owner of East Village mainstays Frank, Lil’ Frankies, and Supper is barefoot in ripped jeans and a T-shirt, his black-rimmed glasses framing a full face of wiry white hair. A giant snake tattoo slinks down one of his arms, paying bold homage to the time a copperhead bit through his sneaker as a kid. He is, at least for the moment, relatively placid, stirring the sauce — which he refers to as his “sticky garlic marinara method” — contemplatively. Two tiny dogs scurry beneath his feet, and his tween sons fidget in various corners of the apartment on VR headsets and iPhones, waiting for him to finish making dinner.

I’ve just met them, but I knew all of their names before I walked in: Cacio and Pepe (the dogs), Vincenzo and Santino (the sons). I also know the name and various interests of Frank’s wife, Arina, a petite 28-year-old who greeted me effusively as she breezed past us to grab dinner with friends. More than 60,000 other people have also likely committed all of this information to memory, thanks to Frank’s Instagram account, a fascinating agglomeration of family and dog snapshots, treatises on Italian dishes and their sundry sexual overtones, erotically photographed food items from his three restaurants, and, most notably, a series of lengthy and ever-rotating cooking videos that Frank refers to as his “methods.”

Frank’s methods are not recipes, and please do not call them that, or he will get a little bit mad. He has never written down a recipe in his life — not even for the cooks at his restaurants — and he’s not about to start now. “I don’t see the point,” he says. Also, please do not ask him for specific brand names or ingredient measurements, or he will really start to get mad. The methods are about you developing your palate and instincts as a cook. You will never be him, and you shouldn’t try. Oh, and do not, under any circumstances, ask him how long something should sit on the stove. “Time is a lie,” he once said on Instagram. “We don’t even know what time is. It’s not something to rely on.” And definitely do not ask him if he’s going to write a cookbook, or exploit his growing Instagram fame for a Food Network show. “I’ve been pitched shows left and right. I turn them down, because they won’t make me executive producer. I’m not going to not own my own show? Fuck you,” he tells me. “I have no partners. I’m plenty busy making great money. I live in a beautiful apartment, I have a house in Miami. What the fuck else do I need?”

On Instagram, as in life, Frank is often on the verge of delightful, partly performative fury, usually directed at an entirely imagined person or idea. He is also implacably horny (“I’m a lunatic,” he admits), constantly conflating food and sex, and he becomes visibly emotional about things like nice sunsets. I don’t even cook, and I’m riveted by his cooking videos, full as they are of passion and drama and lust and rapid-fire mood swings. In the midst of making fusilli with peas, for example, Frank might bring himself to tears talking about how much he loves helping regular people develop sophisticated taste buds. (“This is like being able to have sex and having it feel 20 times better.”) Moments later, he’ll launch into a rant about the mere idea of prechopped vegetables or jarred tomato sauce. (“You need to start putting that processed food where it fucking belongs — in the fucking garbage.”) Soon after, he’ll put up a lengthy post comparing a deep relationship with garlic to “mutual climax.” (“#GoDownOnYourTomatoes, #OfferUpYourAssToGarlic, #ExpectGarlicToReturnTheFavor”).

No matter where they end up, though, the methods — which he films with one hand as he cooks with the other — usually begin with a pronouncement: Watch the video once all the way through, then watch it again and take notes. Then and only then can you DM him with any remaining questions. And if the questions are stupid, he’s going to tell you, and occasionally, post those DMs to his Instagram as a sort of soft public shaming.

It’s all made even more entertaining by the fact that Frank always shoots himself in selfie mode, usually from an unflatteringly low angle, hair akimbo, wearing things like a bright yellow Minions T-shirt. “I have no vanity whatsoever. It’s like, ‘Here it is, do you want to listen to me or not?,’” he says of his decidedly lo-fi aesthetic. “I’ve always been able to have girlfriends, you know what I mean? Something’s working.”

More often than not, you can see several versions of Frank, filming himself, refracted within his gigantic glasses. He has a few catchphrases that he inserts into each video, like “Anoint, anoint, anoint,” which he says whenever he coats his finished pasta dish in olive oil. And he punctuates almost every thought with the word “okay,” as in, “If you put a lot of the water into the pasta dough, okay, it’s not a good thing, okay?”

The whole thing has a sort of cockeyed, intimate appeal, like The Sopranos merged with The Great British Bake-Off, shot through with a little bit of Moonstruck. If Bon Appétit’s cooking videos are moving versions of the magazine’s sections and recipes, Frank’s Instagram stories are improvised tone poems, ones that are usually about fucking. And tens of thousands of people are getting off on the combination of free knowledge and light verbal BDSM. I’m one of them: Just as I feel I personally know Frank’s supporting cast of characters, I feel like I know Frank, and privately imagine he is my rabid Italian uncle, yelling at me because he just wants me to succeed.

The first thing I ask Frank when I meet him: Whom, exactly, is he mad at? Is it the mere idea of an imperfect consumer, mishandling his painstakingly created methods? Or does he picture someone specifically?

“I do work myself into a lather,” he says, laughing loudly. “It’s that aggravated Italian grandmother thing. Like, when someone’s not living up to what I hoped they would do, or when they disappoint me with a stupid question — you need to feel that from me, you know?” He’s on a roll now: “It comes from a tough-love place: I’m trying to make you realize that there are going to be consequences here. This is my shit now, you know what I’m saying? You work for me. I’m teaching you something for free, okay, something valuable, by the way! I’m giving you the fucking food from my own restaurant and coaching you through it. I think I deserve some fucking respect, okay?”

Then, he smiles broadly. It’s a character. People need a character, and I’m giving them one.”

Frank speaks with equal passion about his followers, referring to some of them as students. He also says he answers every single question he gets via DM — within reason. “I can tell when someone’s just flipping through my videos and not even listening. They ask me questions that I answered and went over, you know what I’m saying? You want me to go back over it with you personally, because you didn’t feel like listening?” As he continues, he both works himself into a mild furor and laughs at himself. “The attitude, okay, is, ‘Jesus Christ, at least listen to me, for Christ’s sake, and stop questioning me all the time. If I tell you to do it that way, do it that way and then tell me — after you do it — that you don’t like that way, but at least try it.’ I’ve done it a million fucking times. You think I would know the difference.”

The Instagram character is an “amplified” version of himself, he says, and in part based on his Italian grandmother — his family hails from Puglia, Naples, and Sicily — who taught him to cook when he was 7 years old. Five years after that, Frank was working in pizzerias in his native Queens: “By the time I was 12, I was better than most Italian chefs already. I mean, I was cooking all of her food. It was pretty incredible.” Frank went on to train as a chef and a photographer, and later work as a bartender, before spontaneously buying the original Frank restaurant space in the late ’90s. “And now I’ve been everywhere: high-end French, the best restaurants here in Manhattan, the best restaurants in Italy. I’ve seen a lot and I’m just as good as any chef in this world,” he says. “But I don’t want to be the pretentious chef, you know what I mean? I want to be the skill-related guy.”

Frank sees his Instagram presence — which began as sort of a “chef’s notebook” for him to track ideas and share travel photos back in 2012 — as both a promotional tool for his restaurants, and as a way to turn the proverbial everyman into a chef with confidence. He considers it all “returning the favor” for the knowledge his grandmother imparted onto him, and for all of the good fortune he’s had. “I feel like I have to do this,” he says. As he recounts the enchanted story of his life, he brings himself to tears. “I’m going to start crying,” he tells me, sniffling. “People that know me, know I cry.”

Instagram has, for the most part, been good to Frank in return. For one, it introduced him to the love of his life, now an Instagram star in her own right. “Arina and I spent about a year commenting on each other’s posts, sending DMs here and there, flirting a little bit.” Then, she came in to work at one of his restaurants. “I didn’t even know she was coming in,” Frank says. “So I just walked in, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit. There you are.’ That night we had a Super Bowl party at Lil’ Frankies, and I invited her to come by and have a drink with me, and that was it. We have never parted since.”

Frank says the only explicitly negative experiences he has on Instagram are when he “loses 300 followers a week” after posting something about his wife. “Whenever I post a picture of Arina, it’s like a mass exodus. I can imagine it’s all those women that are following me that are like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you have such a young wife.’ Can’t you see we’re in love?” He’ll also lose a few followers when he gets overtly sexual, which is clearly one of his default modes. “Doesn’t it feel like you’re going down on someone when you eat a great meal?,” he says to me, at one point in our conversation, as he pours a box of paccheri into a pot of extra salty boiling water. “The way it feels to me. Eating a whole fish is the closest thing to cunnilingus you’ll ever find.”

One particularly sex-forward post featuring Arina got Frank in so much internet trouble that he took it down. When I bring it up, it incites a brief, classically Frank rant. “I deleted that and I regret deleting it. Eating and fucking are God-given rights,” he says. “[That reaction of], ‘Ooh, it’s her breasts’ — I never got that. I’m pretty much a fucking nudist. I have complete privacy. I set it up that way so I can be fucking naked. So fuck you, I’m naked! Sometimes I cook naked.” He pauses. “Shit, I better be careful.”

The only real downside to being Instagram famous is that it’s now essentially impossible for Frank to go into his own restaurants, or even to Italy, where his friends and fans call him Zio — Uncle —Frank, without being recognized. But he knows it’s because his followers just want to express their love. Sometimes, however, his followers do make strange requests. “They want me to come to their houses for their birthdays. I’m like, ‘I’m not a birthday clown, people!’ ” he says. “They think they know me, their Uncle Frank. But I can’t do it for everyone, so I don’t do it for anyone.”

Frank mostly doesn’t mind the commotion, though, because it lets him know that whatever he’s doing is working. He’s even considering starting a YouTube channel where he pays someone to follow him around as he cooks, visits his restaurants, and develops new projects, and one day plans on starting a cooking school in Italy, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. “I like playing the role of the benefactor,” he says, mentioning that for a minute as a kid, he considered becoming a Franciscan friar. I ask what changed his mind. “The whole sex thing wasn’t going to work,” he explains. “That was a deal-breaker.”

These days, the only dealbreaker for Frank is selling out. He refuses, for example, to put out a line of food products. “Do you eat jarred tomato sauce at home?,” he asks, making his point rhetorically. When I tell him I do like to eat the occasional Rao’s marinara, he stops stirring his own sauce and stares at me. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “That’s how I get pissed off, when people are lazy. Don’t be lazy, you know what I’m saying? When people say, ‘I bought some store broth,’ I say, ‘Stop talking.’ You mean you can’t put bones in a fucking pot of water, and bring it to a boil, is that what you’re telling me? You don’t know how to do that? Seriously now? That’s how easy it would have been. And that stuff is crap. It’s absolute dog shit. College Inn, that canned shit that they have?”

A few minutes later, still high off the feeling of being absolutely roasted by Frank, I sit down at the table to dig into the sticky garlic paccheri alongside Frank, his kids, and his dogs. It is transcendent, perfectly al dente and dripping with fresh olive oil and plump tomatoes. I ask him if it ever gets old, eating like this, and he says it never does. “Life’s a gift, food’s a gift,” he says. “How can you pass up the opportunity for this, just because you’re lazy?”

Making Sauce With Instagram’s Furious, Horny Italian Uncle