Franny’s and Bklyn Larder

When I think of Franny’s—the now-famous pizzeria with the truck stop name that opened on a still-scrubby section of Flatbush Avenue five years ago—my first thought isn’t of the big ruddy red brick oven that sits squarely in back flanked by rows of cordwood, nor the pies that emerge from it, crusts puffed to uncut perfection.

My first thought is of the crowds. Rain or snow, August or December, Franny’s is perpetually packed, its floor-to-ceiling front window—now mirrored at the lovely little food shop Bklyn Larder they’ve opened down the avenue—literally a picture window illuminated with a glow thrown perhaps not by the brick oven, but by its devotees’ collective admiration. The throngs squeeze in the door to queue an hour for a table (no reservations here) or one of the 10 seats at the bar, even eke out space for dinner and a glass of wine at the tiny strip of window-front seating.

In five short years, Franny’s has become part of the pizza pantheon. Culinary cognoscenti far and wide know the unassuming little slice of a restaurant opened in 2004 by husband and wife Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens—named for her—just a few doors down from their home. As at decades-old Di Fara’s or Totonno’s, food snobs from Manhattan and beyond journey here for the ethereally light and wonderfully spare pies, topped with broccoli rabe and pecorino; tomato, basil and fresh mozz; or clam, chile and parsley, the salty buttery brine spreading straight from the shells.

Yet, despite a proper pizza pedigree, we’d argue that Franny’s isn’t really a pizzeria: Night after night, the crowds come less for the crust than for the pastas and sides, even the salads, all some of the best farmhouse food in the city. That’s because, despite the restaurant’s name, this member of high-pie society isn’t a third generation pizzeria run by Dom DeMarco devotees who make pilgrimages to Bensonhurst for Sicilian slices, to Staten Island for thin-crusted pepperonis or to New Haven for white pies, though the couple did head to Italy for a few weeks of research. (The truth is Feinberg didn’t even know how to make dough till two weeks before they opened . . . but more on that later.) Franny’s is less akin to Di Fara’s than it is to Applewood and Grocery, to Dressler and Diner and Marlow & Sons.

So many regulars (which include Blue Hill‘s chef Dan Barber, who claims Franny’s as one of his favorite Brooklyn restaurants) come not just for the pies, if they even order one, but for the rest of Franny’s menu: for Stephens’s cutting-edge cocktail (like our favorite, starring lovage); for small plates of pumpkin agrodolce, tiny fried arancini and crostini topped with nothing but a smear of crazy good olive oil and some hardneck garlic; for honest farm greens aquiver on the plate, dressed to perfection; for a handful of pastas tossed with house-made pork sausages or sauced with a wintry mix of cauliflower, capers, pine nuts and raisins.

And despite the pie’s outside reputation, over at Larder—the specialty foods, sandwich and takeout shop across Flatbush where Feinberg now spends most of his days cooking—there’s no pizza at all. Instead, he offers his luscious little tomato-slicked meatballs; trays of maccheroni and cheese and baked polenta with meat sauce; bowls of salads like blanched beans drenched olive oil; pretty little jars of pickled cauliflower and beets; garlicky roasted free-range chickens and a slew of stellar sandwiches like a Cubano-style salami, provolone and hot pickles; tuna and anchovies; crispy-crusted porchetta on a roll or a hot olive-oil-soaked smashup of creamy ricotta and sautéed greens, not to mention Franny’s duly celebrated gelato.

Franny’s and Larder—or at least their zeitgeist—was conceived more than a decade ago when Francine and Andrew met at Savoy, Peter Hoffman’s groundbreaking temple of seasonal sumputousness in SoHo. Feinberg was working the stoves; Stephens, after several years in eco-agriculture nonprofits, was in bartending school and mixing cocktails. “And that’s where I met Andrew,” she recalls: “We came together and it was just, ‘oh yeah, that’s obviously what we were going to do.'”

“That” meant running a restaurant, though their first attempt, a place up in Western Mass., where Stephens ran a farmers market, “failed miserably,” says Feinberg, so they ditched the Berkshires for Brooklyn. He cooked under another Savoy alum at Rose Water while they searched for their own place—though their pie disciples will be shocked to learn pizza was never part of the plan.

“We knew it was going to be Italian,” says Feinberg. “For me it’s just the perfect cuisine. It’s not fancy and it goes hand in hand with the whole Greenmarket thing—find the best products and do little to them.”

Before long they secured a lease for the spot on Flatbush and had started work on the space, but were still debating what it would be when Franny’s brother-in-law fatefully suggested pizza— which Andrew had never made. So they hired a third-generation brick-oven pizza maker from Queens they read about in Time Out while Feinberg got to work on his technique, fast.

“‘OK, I need to figure out how to do this,'” Feinberg recalls thinking. “A pizza book had just come out,” he says, referring to American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, by Peter Reinhart, a professor at Johnson & Wales. “I probably originally based it off of something in there.”

Whatever he did, it worked. Within weeks, New York magazine had penned an ecstatic review—”Franny’s isn’t just the best newfangled pizza joint in town. It’s one of the city’s best pizzerias, period”—and, within days, the place was well on its way to Brooklyn institution. (We predict it’s a matter of time till Marty Markowitz declares lower Flatbush Avenue Franny’s Way.)

And with the exception of a few customer-relations lessons at the outset—Franny’s wasn’t initially prepared for the weekend crush of 300 demanding diners, and took a blogosphere beating for their audacity to serve fancy food on Flatbush—the restaurant is regarded as one of the best in the borough. And, for the past year, Gotham foodies were anxiously awaiting the unveiling of Larder, which, true to its name, also carries the very ingredients— San Marzano tomatoes, salumi, cheese and that addictive olive oil—that stock the shelves up the street.

Like the pizza at Franny’s—where Feinberg was tweaking the dough until just a few months ago—Larder is still a work in progress, adjusting to both recession-minded shoppers and demands that are different from those of a restaurant. They’ve learned that take-out customers prefer standards to specials, for example, meaning you’ll always be able to order those meatballs.

Though, funnily enough, nobody has yet asked for pizza.

Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn‘s deputy editor. She lives around the corner from both Franny’s and Larder. Jealous much?

Franny’s Better Half: Andrew Feinberg is the man behind the food at both Bklyn Larder and Franny’s, which is named after his wife—a co-conspirator, co-owner and top-notch cocktail maker.