Joe D'Elia's accent is as legit as his pizza.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native has been making authentic New York-style pies at his modest west Omaha restaurant, Frank's Pizzeria, for nearly 10 years.
Before a month ago, I'd never been to the place. But I would bring Frank's up in conversations about Omaha pizza joints, and almost everyone I talked to told me that Joe serves some of the best New York-style pie in Omaha.
I love New York-style pizza. I love thin crust. I love eating the crispy, chewy end. I love simple, fresh toppings. Every time I'm in New York, I eat at least one slice from my favorite spot, Motorino, in the East Village. And a big folded slice, eaten off a paper plate from a random corner pizza joint, is my idea of bliss.
When the first pie I ordered at Frank's arrived with a thin, beautiful, golden crust and a pile of paper plates, I knew I was in the right place.
That crust was the base for one of Frank's Specials, topped with sausage, peppers, onions, extra cheese, pepperoni, meatballs, black olives and anchovies. Even though the pizza had all those toppings, the thin crust wasn't soggy. In fact, a few bites into my first slice, the bottom of the crust remained crisp.
Flavors varied with each bite: hints of fennel from the sausage, chunks of mild tomato and, on the half with the anchovies, a subtle saltiness. (If you think you don't like anchovies, I urge you to try them. They're not fishy at all.)
My dining partner liked the sausage's spice. And though he said he couldn't taste the tomato sauce enough, I liked it. The raw tomato flavor worked as a subtle support instead of overtaking the toppings and crust. The crust's back edge was crisp and chewy at once with a satisfying, toasty flavor. The slices were perfectly foldable, as they should be.
We tried an order of the fried ravioli, which had a big scoop of ricotta inside and not-too-thick breading. A side of homemade marinara for dipping was satisfying. Joe told me later that though he buys the ravioli premade, employees hand-bread them individually in house.
The special pizza ran just under $16 for a medium, plenty for two. The fried rav was $8.25. We had a glass of red wine — a reasonable $3.75 — and a Peroni, an Italian beer, for $3.25 a glass and $12 a pitcher. (Frank's is one of only four places in town with the beer on tap.)
Joe doesn't use a precooked sauce on the pizza, instead using a raw tomato sauce that cooks in the oven with the pie, and the cheese isn't just regular mozzarella, he said. It has some buffalo milk added in so it melts better.
“Between our sauce and our cheese,” Joe told me, “I try to go the extra mile to keep it as fresh as possible.”
The restaurant makes the dough for the crust a day or two in advance, and that's by design. It gives the yeast and sugar time to mingle and “get their flavor,” Joe said.
The pizzas are made by hand to-order on wooden paddles and slid into an oven between 575 and 600 degrees. The toppings go on top of the cheese, Joe said, to make sure as much of the moisture as possible is sucked out of the pie. That must be what accounted for the crispy bottom crust.
Joe has been running Frank's since 2003, and his family has been in the pizza business since the 1970s. He's been working in the business since he was 16. In 2009, he opened the Union Pizzeria in north downtown Omaha, but he was out of that business by mid-2010. Now Frank's is his only restaurant.
Frank's isn't fancy. It has a handful of tables and booths along the walls and a big, partially open kitchen dominated by the big oven and space for making pizzas. The walls are decorated with Husker memorabilia, television sets and images of customers.
On my first visit, Omaha's most recent snowstorm was imminent, so the place was empty. (The nearby Hy-Vee grocery store, though, was a mob scene.) On my second visit, at lunch, there were about six other diners.
I wanted to try Frank's version of the Margherita pizza on the second visit. We also tried a meatball sub — something I don't usually order but I figured Frank's was the place to try it.
My friend loved the pizza as much as I did. Simple and straightforward, topped with the same light, raw tomato sauce, fresh basil, chunks of fresh mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil, there was nothing to dislike. The ingredients sung.
The sauce on the meatball sub was a heartier version of the pizza sauce. Joe told me later that it cooks low and slow for eight or nine hours. The restaurant uses the same whole tomatoes in this sauce as it does in the raw sauce. The marinara is cooked and then run through a food mill. Its flavors were deep and rich and the texture was not too thick.
The dense meatballs were nicely seasoned with basic salt and pepper and herbs — my friend described them as “old school” — and they were more meat and herbs than bread crumbs.
I asked Joe what was in there and he told me it's a secret seasoning blend passed down from his grandmother's recipe. But he would tell me there's garlic, red pepper flakes, parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs in the mix.
Even under the weight of two meatballs, a hefty amount of sauce and a thick layer of cheese, the locally made Rotella's bun still stayed crisp. My friend and I could manage only half the 12-inch sub between us. Frank's also serves a six-inch meatball sub; either size will cost you less than $7.
Joe said the meatball sub is popular, and so is the veal parmesan, which he serves as an entree with spaghetti for $12.99 or in sandwich form for $8.
“I think I might be one of the only places in town that has the most traditional version of veal parmesan,” he said. “You don't see it any more.”
The restaurant also serves the more traditional version of Italian cannoli, with impastata ricotta as opposed to other sweeter, pudding-like fillings. (Be still, my heart.)
Joe told me that some of his customers come from the surrounding neighborhoods near 132nd Street and West Dodge Road. Most come into the strip mall for trips to the grocery store and wander over his way. A lot are shocked when Joe tells them he's been making pizzas in this small bay for 10 years.
Most of his regulars, though, come to Frank's from New York — New York via Omaha, that is.
“The majority of my customers are people from the East Coast who know what they are looking for,” he said, “and who know what it should taste like.”
I'm Omaha through and through, and I knew what I was looking for when I came in. I found it. And next time, I'll save room for one of those cannolis.
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