Friday, March 8, 2013
After vowing never to go back, SIMON PARKIN got an offer he couldn’t refuse and found himself warming to Italian American chain restaurant Frankie and Benny’s.
Last time I went to Frankie and Benny’s I vowed it’d take an offer I couldn’t refuse to force me to go back Unfortunately for me that offer came in the form of a family for whom a repeat visit was nonnegotiable.
Anyone who has watched any mob film will know Italian Americans take their food very, very seriously. Last time I ordered here I feared that what was being served up in their name in this theme restaurant put the chef at risk of waking up with a horse’s head in his bed.
The menu may talk of Frankie’s traditional pizza, cousin Luigi’s nut pesto and cousin Mario’s classic beef and tomato sauce, but what was being served up is about as far from family home cooking as it was possible to get.
I’m still no fan, but having returned family in tow — rather than just my grumpy self — I can at least now see the appeal and I’m happy to report some improvements in both the family and selection of food on offer.
In case you’re wondering, Frankie and Benny were apparently real people. The pitch goes that Frankie Giuliani was a 10-year-old when he parents left Sicily bound for America, arriving at New York’s Ellis Island in 1924.
The family opened a restaurant in Little Italy — taking advantage of momma’s old country cooking. When poppa died Frankie and his high school buddy Benny took over the business and promptly set about expanding it for all it was worth.
It’s like something straight out of Goodfellas. A proper all-American story, albeit it one filtered thorough a thousand global restaurant franchises before finally being washed up on Norwich’s Riverside and just about every other retail park and entertainment centre in the country.
Stepping inside it’s much as you’d expect. There is a bar area and booth-style seating with ceiling fans and venetian blinds, plus lots of unnecessarily over-themed clutter. However, if you can overlook this kitsch décor and the cliché 1950s crooner soundtrack, truth be told, it’s really not all that different from many American diner restaurants in my experience.
You cannot fault the menu options. There is plenty of choice, even if some of the dishes are a little bit uninspired. Starters include crispy chicken strips, calamari and mushrooms baked in garlic and cheese sauce. Main courses inevitably include pizzas (a whopping 20 options) and pasta dishes and bakes, plus deep filled calzone, and several burgers.
There is also a list of about a dozen or so house specials, from beer battered cod, salmon fishcakes and sweet cured bacon steaks. They’ve also got a good selection of 28-day hung steak options and an expanded list of salads.
Italian families spend hours pouring over their sauces and meatballs — think of the scene in Goodfellas where the banged up mobsters cook in prison. I doubt whether the chefs here spend the same amount of time, with far more effort put into opening packets and popping things into the microwave.
You can actually see through into the kitchen and the grill, so there is some real cooking going on, but just far too little of it. But that’s the way with many chain restaurants.
The bruschetta we tried was flat tasting, without much fresh zing, but the Louisiana hot chicken wings were better, sticky and moreish.
Our main course of oven-baked chicken parmigana was pretty good too.
Topped with ham and cheese, it came with plenty of Neapolitan sauce and a juicy roasted pepper and aubergine. And if they’d messed up that Italian American classic of meatballs it would have been unforgivable. They didn’t. They were chunky and the sauce thick, rich and with just enough of a hint of spice.
The service was prompt, though there was nothing particularly special about the presentation.
A dessert of vanilla cheesecake with berry sauce was the best thing we tasted, probably because it didn’t have to be cooked.
At about £20 for three courses it was just about okay if you’re after a quick run of the mill meal before seeing a film or going tenpin bowling. If you’re looking for anything more, like real fresh food — forget about it.
FRANKIE AND BENNY’S
Open: Mon-Sat 9am-11pm, Sun 9am-10.30pm.
Price: Starters from £3.95, mains £8.25, deserts from £3.95
Vegetarian options: Good selection
Wheelchair access: Yes, with disabled toilets