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[whitespace] Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi Too!
Photograph by George Sakkestad

His Own Spin: Chef Armando Nava makes a perfect pizza crust.

Perfectly Frankie

The food still rules at this Italian gem, even if FJL2 feels a bit like a sequel

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

AS I WAITED for a table at San Jose's installment of Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi Too!, the word "slick" poured through my ears like virgin olive oil. This place is one slick package within which family-style dining has been transformed into a well-dressed formula. It wouldn't take much effort now to apply this concept across the nation with cookie-cutter efficiency.

When it comes to Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi, the owners have created their own vision of family-style dining and have robed what was once refreshing into a fail-safe template. While waiting, I reflected on images of the original over in Mountain View. I saw people waiting in lines along El Camino Real, looking through the windows at young men tossing pizza dough--where Barry O'Halloran worked and eventually became the world champion, with an invitation to The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. It was an eatery full of steam and soul and authentic atmosphere so thick it could be stirred like spaghetti sauce. The owners were on station. Friendships were forged between strangers, and sometimes against the will.

The San Jose location is different. The wide-open space offers a full view of a décor that blends conflicting concepts into a single theme. It's chic and comfy, I will say that. Hackneyed depictions of celebrity icons--from Chaplin to Desi and Lucy, Sinatra and the rest--dot the walls, including the one over the glitzy exhibition kitchen.

Fretting over the decline of originality came to a quick and ignominious halt when the first of our orders--an Italian Cobb salad ($8.95) and a small pizza loaded with sausage and pepperoni ($13.50)--slid across the red checks of the tablecloth. The food here is still very good, very fresh, made to order and served in abundant portions.

Pizza and calzone remain excellent selections. On our second visit, we had a vegetarian calzone ($11.50), a huge disc baked to a burnt almond sheen and filled with mozzarella, sautéed veggies, then finished with a young marinara thick with tomato pulp.

Some of the best sandwiches in the area come from this kitchen. Fresh focaccia bread--baked to order--comes stuffed to overload with just about anything you like. We've sampled the New York-style sausage (made by the family sausage company) and the meatball, both $8.95, and both heavily fortified with mozzarella. These sandwiches are large and could feed two with complete satisfaction.

The kitchen keeps its finger on the past by continuing to prepare a wide variety of pasta dishes--served in ideal tooth-resistant condition--including the perennial spaghetti and meatballs ($8.95) or meat or cheese ravioli ($7.95) with either the Bolognese (meat) or marinara (meatless) sauce. The most basic is the cappellini pomodori ($8.50), combining angel hair (I opted for spaghetti) with a pan-fresh sauce of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, the kind that kisses the palate with a slight smokiness that evolves from fresh garlic sizzled quick in the pan.

We departed from more typical fare with rigatoni e spinaci ($10.50). It proved a healthy alternative to the other pasta dishes, most of them laced with cream and very rich. Al dente pasta tubes were pan-sautéed with olive oil, onion, garlic, bacon and roasted red peppers, then tossed into a warm salad with raw spinach, Gorgonzola and roasted walnuts.

Linguini pollo ala cuore ($10.50) brings together tender chicken breast, onion, broccoli and red bell pepper with garlic, tomato and basil. Like the pomodori, it bellowed with sautéed garlic. Olive oil was thoroughly dispersed over the noodles, toothy vegetables and morsels of chicken.

From favorites, we liked the scampi ($10.95), mostly for the generous portion of large prawns lightly sautéed with garlic, shallots and mushrooms in a sauce bonded with cream, not dominated by it. Over a bed of tender linguini, the shellfish rested in a clean, delicious display. Another Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi specialty remains the veal scaloppini ($10.95), imbued with Marsala and full of rugged flavors.

Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi has done so well perhaps it deserves to apply its particular template to the dining scene. Perhaps. The food was good 35 years ago when the first one opened and it's still good now--whether the ceilings are faux-painted or not. Families appear to find comfort at the tables here and receive good service. I saw plenty of kids eating well and enjoying themselves amid the staged trappings of this place.


Frankie, Johnnie, & Luigi Too!
Address: 5245 Prospect Road, San Jose
Phone: 408.446.9644
Hours: 11:30am-10pm Sun-Thu, 4-11 Fri-Sat
Cuisine: Family Italian
Price Range: $6-$20

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From the August 2-8, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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