Food

Sauce Channels Grandma’s Sunday Dinner and the Soul of Italian Vegetables

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Frank Prisinzano is no stranger to the restaurant business. He’s been cooking since he was 8 years old, so it’s only natural that he open a slew of restaurants, the oldest of which, named Frank, just celebrated its 17th anniversary. He took about five years off from launching a new restaurant, and then opened Sauce (84 Rivington Street; 212-420-7700) almost three years ago, to showcase simple Italian food.

For Prisinzano, Sauce was a reset button. “I hadn’t opened up anything in a while,” he says of Sauce. “It’s kind of an amalgamation of all the restaurants I’ve opened. I was looking to do something very, very simple and very old-school Italian American.”

Cooking is in Prisinzano’s genes; he’s been in the business his entire life. His great-grandparents owned restaurants in Italy, and he began cooking with his grandmother in Corona, Queens when he was just a boy. He landed his first restaurant job when he was 12 and attended the Culinary Institute of America when he was 17. After graduating, he had his own kitchen by the time he was 22.

Easy food is key for Prisinzano; he believes vegetables are the heart of Italian food. “Simplicity is where it’s always been at. As chefs mature, they realize that limiting the amount of ingredients, raising the quality and handling them with the highest respect is really what the best food is all about. Complicated food never works. It’s kind of like a return to the simple. Everything I do is extremely simple, extremely high quality, especially with the vegetables we specialize in.”

As a paean to simplicity, Sauce’s menu includes zucchini limone ($16.95), a pasta-free dish that features julienned zucchini, lemon, butter and parmigiano. The zucchini, adequately bathed in butter, has an enduring toothsomeness and squeezing lemon over it all gives the dish a zesty quality. Sauce sells ragu “by the piece”; we tried the egg ragu ($4.95), which is usually served in Grandmother’s Tomato Gravy, a meat-based sauce. You can ask the server to swap it out for one of the restaurant’s vegetarian tomato sauces, the passato, filetto, or dad’s marinara.

We chose the passato, a strained sauce that only uses the pulp of the tomato. The sauce is cooked down with whole cloves of garlic and basil leaves; while it has a pulpy texture and sweet flavor, it also includes pungent notes from the garlic. The dish includes firm-tender green peas, and a supple poached egg. Underneath everything is a slice of Pugliese bread, softened from soaking in the sauce.

Prisinzano is also known for his innovative salads, like a crisp escarole ($11.95), with fuji apples, ricotta salata, mint leaves, lemon, castelvetrano olive and pine nuts. All of Sauce’s side dishes — or contorni in Italian — are also vegetarian, such as the popular soft parmigiano polenta ($6.95) and yams with butter and sage ($6.95).