On a Friday afternoon before Labor Day, a vintage Mercedes sports car the color of New England clam chowder pulled up to Southold Fish Market, inches from picnickers enjoying oyster po’boys.
A white-bearded man in chef’s whites and worn leather clogs hopped out. Carrying a large, empty plastic tub, he jogged inside and began sorting through every porgy in the store. There were a lot of them.
“Too small Charlie, these are all too small,” he said, peering around the wide glass windows that covered yards of iced monkfish, bluefish and striped bass. Charlie Manwaring, who owns the market, produced another 30-gallon tub of iced fish, and the man rifled through the glistening porgies, rejecting the too-small and the too-large, and tossing the just-right into his tub.
Minutes later he arrived at the boardwalk in front of Barba Bianca, the restaurant on the Greenport waterfront that he opened in May.
Chef Frank (Frankie) DeCarlo and Dulcinea (Dulcy) Benson, his wife and business partner, have lived in Silver Beach for 12 years, but claim that no one on Shelter Island had heard of them until they opened Barba Bianca — Italian for “white beard” — in Greenport. They were fine being anonymous, but Frankie admitted he likes that the guys on the ferry have started to greet him when he goes to work in Greenport every day.
Frankie was one of the first chefs to marry fine-dining and the now ubiquitous wood burning oven. For more than 15 years, Frankie and Dulcy’s restaurant, Peasant, on the Lower East Side, has been the place to enjoy rustic Italian food as well as a gathering place for chefs who want to see how Frankie tames the flames.
At their new place, fishing and the waterfront are the show. Barba Bianca, situated in a wooden building surrounded by other wooden structures, required a shift from 600-degree open flames to 300-degree open views of the harbor and Shelter Island.
Dulcy grew up in Shirley and spent a good chunk of her childhood clamming, crabbing and fishing with her father on the Great South Bay. “We couldn’t put our pole in the water without catching something,” she said.
Frankie started cooking as a child growing up in Mountainside, New Jersey in an old house on five acres with a pond. “I was in a household where, when I came home at night, I had to cook for myself. I started early.”
He often made “a pot of gravy,” slang for a tomato sauce served with supermarket pasta. He was an enthusiast for Velveeta Pillows, a bizarre early 1970s corporate-invented snack. For this delicacy, teenage Frankie employed a hinged griddle, loaded with two pieces of buttered Wonder bread and four lumps of processed cheese to make four pillows per slice — a shotgun marriage of grilled cheese sandwich and ravioli.
Cooking was a positive channel for Frankie’s early fascination with fire. “I was a bit of a pyromaniac,” he admitted. He began working in restaurants when he was 14 and has never stopped.
Never much of a student, he barely made it through two years of high school.
Dulcy went to American University, worked in public relations and then got into restaurant management. She and Frankie met when he was the chef at Circa, an East Village restaurant, and she came in to talk to the owners about being a manager.
“He was all disheveled, and he ran over and asked if I wanted a coffee.” Dulcy said. She considered this odd. In her experience, a chef’s interaction with the staff was mainly to yell at them.
“I wanted to meet this girl,” Frankie explained.
The owners asked Dulcy if she had a boyfriend. She did, and remembers them saying, “That’s good, because the chef has a problem.”
“Frankie is so talented, but with no discipline,” she said. “I like things orderly, I love rules.”
It was a year of battling before they worked out a relationship that has endured for almost 20 years. “We’ve been through it all. It’s hard to work with your spouse,” she said.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
After years of cooking in New York, Frankie went to Italy to learn traditional Pugliese cooking. In many of the kitchens he visited, cooking didn’t involve using gas. “People would light olive or grape trimmings, and they’d cook at home that way, lighting little fires in their ovens or on a rotisserie. I used to dream one day of building a kitchen and having only wood fires and I did, and that was Peasant.”
Today restaurants that cook with wood or charcoal are more common, but 20 years ago Frankie was a pioneer; he’s still the rare chef who cooks on the line every night.
Peasant had been open a little over a year when the terrorist attack of 9/11 took place. Dulcy and Frankie were in their apartment five blocks from the Twin Towers, just returned the night before on a 20-hour flight from Korea, and were so disoriented they both thought they were hallucinating the events of that September morning. Frankie went up to the roof and watched the first tower come down.
With the city in shock, and lower Manhattan a smoky scene of ruin, running Peasant, their livelihood, seemed impossible. “But we opened,” Dulcy said. “People came in. They’d feel awkward, maybe order some appetizers. I don’t even know how we got food in there. They talked and they felt better.” By the end of October Frankie and Dulcy knew they would make it through the crisis.
The couple had “a first second home” in Delaware, but Dulcy longed to be on the East End. She knew she’d found the right place when she spotted a modest house a short walk from Crab Creek with a pool and a 60-foot American Sycamore in the yard.
“You can build a house in a few months, but to grow a tree that size takes a lifetime,” she said. “There’s a certain kind of person who is on Shelter Island, who doesn’t mind waiting for a ferry, who won’t have access to everything 24/7. Impatient people can’t be here.”
Frankie and Dulcy plan to retire on the Island, hoping to hang onto an old-school way of life, in a place where people don’t think of honking their horns. “I hope it doesn’t change,” said Dulcy.
We’re honest people, simple people, Frankie said.
“One of us is simpler than the other,” said Dulcy. She was looking at him.
What do you always have with you? Frank: I have a very unusual knife, about 80 years old, bone handle, handmade, birds eye rivets. It’s always in my pocket.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Dulcinea: Crab Creek
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Both: Venice.
Last time you were elated? Dulcinea: I never get elated. That’s never happened. I’m not like that.
What exasperates you? Dulcinea: We’ve had people throw things, and threaten to kill you because they can’t get a table.
Best day of the year on Shelter Island? Frank: Any summer day that I’m not working and able to stay home.
Favorite movie or book? Dulcinea: “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway
Favorite food? Frank: Spaghetti pomodoro, especially if Dulcy makes it.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Frank: Chef Jean-Louis Palladin.