This post was sponsored by Vancouver Taxi.
I was a few blocks from the Ferragosto celebration in the Bronx’s Little Italy when I found Mohamed Baba parked at a de facto cab stand on 3rd Avenue near Fordham University.
Assuming I was unlikely to find a yellow taxi in this neck of the woods, I poked my head through the window of his gypsy cab and asked him if he could take me somewhere good to eat.
“Do you like Italian food?”
Who doesn’t like Italian food?
“I know a place close by that makes really good lasagne,” he said.
I was already my way to an Italian festival, but I wasn’t expecting the adventure to wrap itself into such a neat little package. Were the Fates being especially kind?
Not exactly. Mohamed turned onto E. 187th St. and starting searching for Frankie, where he’d eaten his marvelous lasagne last week.
Up and down the street we drove, getting tangled in Ferragosto traffic. Finally, he stopped the car and told me to get out and ask a pair of elderly gents who were speaking a language I couldn’t identify if they knew where Frankie was. They looked at me as if I had purple hair. They’d never heard of the place.
“I know it’s around here, but I came at night,” he said, “Frankie…Frankie…”
We made a u-turn. Mohamed kept repeating the restaurant’s name as if it were an incantation. For a moment, I tried to distract him from the search – what’s lost is often found when we’re not looking – and asked him how he’d ended up in New York.
Mohamed was forced to flee his native Mauritania because of his opposition to the military government. After a brief stint in Canada, he was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 2002. Many of his friends who stayed in Mauritania are in jail or have disappeared.
He told me this as if he were going down a list of things he’d bought at the supermarket last week. On the surface, his exile was no big deal. Or maybe his story was bigger than English, beyond a brief encounter with a stranger in his back seat.
Until he gets U.S. citizenship, Mohamed said it’s not safe for him to go back to his country. In the meantime, he drives a gypsy cab in the Bronx and goes to Africa Kine in West Harlem when he’s craving Thiebou Djeun, a Senegalese dish made with rice, fish and vegetables that’s popular throughout West Africa.
When we passed the De Lillo Pastry Shop on E. 187th for the third time, I discovered that Mohamed is also partial to sweets.
“Oh, I love that bakery!” he said, “That’s where I go to eat cake. Cheesecake.”
Half a block later, he stopped in front of a place called Palombo and told me that’s where he’d eaten his legendary lasagne.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes – that’s it.”
I could tell he was lying, but what could I do? Frankie was nowhere to be found.
Sure enough, when I went into Palombo there was no sign of lasagne, and a waiter confirmed my suspicions.
Was ricotta cheese at the bottom of that rich, silky cheesecake? I couldn’t be sure. I only knew that there were few ingredients in the delicious dairy bomb – and that all of them, as is so often the case when Italians cook, were of the highest quality.
Still hungry and still determined to find the fabled Frankie, I wandered over to the Ferragosto festival. I listened to plump ladies belt out Italian folk songs. I ogled suckling pigs roasting open-mouthed over hot coals, and I studied the nonnas frying zeppole (I tasted them fresh from the deep fryer, dusted with powdered sugar – they were divine, of course).
I wanted to eat forever, especially after I spotted the street-side oyster bar at Cosenza’s Fish Market. I slurped down a dozen then cruised over to the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, where baptisms are celebrated in Italian on every 4th Sunday (and in Spanish on every 2nd Sunday and in English on every 3rd).
Carrying on the hunt for Frankie, I stumbled into the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor bazaar created by former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to give Italian deli, produce and hand-rolled cigar vendors a place to sell their wears. I vowed to come back for a sandwich on a day when I hadn’t stuffed myself with cheesecake and zeppole.
Just as I was taking my final lap around Ferragosto, I looked up and saw it. Right in the middle of Arthur Avenue, in the eye of the festival’s storm. No wonder Mohamed couldn’t find Frankie – the street was blocked off. On top of that, the place was closed.
I studied the list of specials pasted to the window: lasagne, Philly cheesesteak, and…chili dogs?
Turns out that Frankie is actually Frankie Franks, and that their specialty is hot dogs. They’ve been open just four months in a spot where a pizzeria used to be.
I’d like to give Mohamed the benefit of the doubt. The lasagne at Frankie Franks could be amazing – and so could their chili dogs. There’s only one way to find out, right?
Stay tuned for parte due of the adventure in Little Italy.
In the meantime, if you’re yearning for good cheesecake, please take the cabbie’s advice and go here:
De Lillo Pastry Shop
606 E 187th St, Little Italy – Bronx
Tel. (718) 367-8198
Open: Mon-Fri 8 am-7 pm, Sat 8 am-8:30 pm, Sun 8 am-6 pm