Dinners are back at Shank's and Evelyn's

A tradition restored at Italian Market

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The Italian Market is all about tradition, and the return of the dinners at Shank's and Evelyn's (formerly known as Frankies at Night) revives a signature institution.

Chef Frankie "Shank" Perri is at the helm of the place his father, the late Frank R. Perri Sr. and his mother, Evelyn Perri, began.

For now, the renown luncheonette that has served dignitaries as well as locals for 45 years transforms into a fine dining establishment in the evening.

It's similar to the way we used to decorate the high school gym for prom night - a little draping here and there, a few strategically placed sparkly lights, and you've got a grown-up evening.

Plans are to finish renovating the upstairs to accommodate a formal 38-seat restaurant by the holidays. This is a good thing, as the seating in the luncheonette is on the tight side (being squished is probably not good for dessert sales).

No mistaking it, you are in the heart of the Italian Market. The menu is pretty much unchanged since it's first incarnation 20 years ago. As I said, you expect tradition.

One thing that has always bemused me is the Italian-American custom of putting jumbo lump crabmeat on just about every dish. I've never been able to figure out the genesis of this. Is there a jumbo lump crabmeat region of Italy? And why the inflection on the word "jumbo"?

It's so ubiquitous I expect a "Saturday Night Live" skit that goes something like, "Our specials tonight are veal with JUMBO lump crabmeat, New York Strip Steak with JUMBO lump crabmeat, Catch of the Day with JUMBO lump crabmeat and for dessert try our cannolis with JUMBO lump crabmeat. Should I pour sparkling or tap water with JUMBO lump crab meat?"

The wait staff here is old school, and most have been working with Shanks for years. There's also a mother/daughter combo, which we discovered when we asked where the cannolis were made.

Professional and unflappable until that moment, our waitress paled and then anxiously turned and said, "Mom, where are our cannolis from?"

That kind of moment really defines the Italian Market experience, and it is a welcome part of the mix. The service throughout the evening was very attentive but not hovering.

If you are hungry, start with Frankies Italian Antipasto ($6.95), which was enough to make a meal. I was grateful that he separated out the meat from the platter because one of my guests was Very Vegetarian. So, I feel a little small mentioning that there was no prosciutto on the plate, as promised in the menu.

The very attentive wait staff also relayed our request to Chef Frankie that the Stuffed Portobello special be made without the crabmeat so our vegetarian could also eat it.

Actually, I don't think you need the crab. Chef Frankie replaced it in the spinach stuffing with sun-dried tomatoes and the dish was delicious. I think the crab may have put it over the top.

The Stuffed Clams ($7.95) appie was my favorite of the evening. Stuffed with a seafood medley, the ratio of bread crumbs to stuff was perfect. The clam remained moist, which can be a major fault of stuffed clams.

The disappointing dish of the evening was Pan Fried Ziti ($13.95). A mixture of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, pimentos and artichoke hearts was sauteed and glazed with orange liqueur sauce.

The Very Vegetarian taster was intrigued and thought the pasta would, indeed, be fried and crisp. Turns out, it's a typo on the menu and should read "pan fra ziti."

Oh well. Guess we should have asked to be sure what we were getting.

The Veal Special ($22.95) one night, with asparagus tips and jumbo lump crabmeat, pulled together the richness of the crab and veal, yet the asparagus added an earthy contrast.

Steak Frankies Way ($25.95) is filet mignon topped with roasted peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes in a demi-glaze cognac sauce. The filet was cooked just as ordered, and chef stopped by to make sure it was what I expected. It's a large enough portion that, with appetizers, you'll be taking some home.

Entrees come with a side of pasta and marinara. And, thankfully, no jumb lump crabmeat.

Desserts still seem to be in transition. Strawberries with Grand Marnier ($7.95) was so heavy on the liquer that the person driving didn't want to eat it.

I was a little disappointed in the Tiramisu ($6.95), which was somewhat dry, flavorless and served from a tin container. But you can never go wrong with cannolis from Isgros ($3.95).

So, the inevitable question is, why another restaurant in the Italian Market? Well, I guess that's like asking, why seven "Rocky" pictures? For better or worse, each one has its place in the storyline . . . and then there's tradition. *