Chef Franco Porporino Jr. sits at Fresco da Franco while the Food Network crew waits to film. Courtesy Franco Porporino, Jr.
Chef Franco Porporino Jr. sits at Fresco da Franco while the Food Network crew waits to film. Courtesy Franco Porporino, Jr.

Help My Yelp'
Season one, episode six: “Italian Intervention”
Host Monti Carlo vists Fresco
da Franco and owner Franco
Porporino Jr.

May 15, 10 p.m., the Food Network

Fresco da Franco is at 15 Church St.
frescoonchurch.com, 973-337-5100

Franco Porporino Jr. has a piece of advice for restaurateurs fielding calls from reality shows:

His experience with “Help My Yelp” was a little rocky.

Maybe it’s no wonder the producers hedged on what the title of the show was when they called him.

Ultimately, Porporino Jr. said, he learned a few things, and made a friend of the show’s host, Monti Carlo.

The exposure and air time were enticing, said the chef.

But if a restaurant were really in trouble the show could be very helpful, he said.

It’s just that his restaurant, Fresco da Franco, at 15 Church St., was never in trouble. On the Yelp site, Consumers share views. Or are they truly consumer views? In one response, Porporino Jr. suggested the reviewers were shills from the competition. OpenTable, which also hosts reviews but is tied to reservations, is a better site, he said. There, his site receives a rating 4.2 out of 5, he said.

In “Help My Yelp,” a coproduction from Yelp and the Food Network, undercover Yelpers (that is, diners who don’t identify themselves as Yelpers), give feedback about a restaurant’s food and service. Later on, another group of Yelp Elite Squad members give their reports, to show how the restaurant has or has not taken advice.

And while Yelp reviews note a loud noise level at Fresco da Franco, that is only on Saturday nights after 9 p.m. Then, the restaurant might raise the music level. Fresco da Franco won the International Five Star Diamond Award award in 2015, and Porporino has just been told he’s won it again for 2017.

The award, given by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, recognizes food, atmosphere and service, and is endorsed by Michelin chefs Alain Ducasse, Jean George Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.

Porporino and his brother opened the restaurant in 2013, at a time when Church Street was less upscale than it is now. Now, the chef said, “you’re on Rodeo Drive.”

Food is in his DNA, Porporino says. When he was growing up in West Paterson, now Woodland Park, “there was no such thing as buying bread off the shelf, or cured meats.” His Italian immigrant parents grew their own vegetables out back.

After working in a pizzeria in Little Falls, and opening his own restaurant Porporino went to work as a broker on Wall Street and also hosted the upstairs exclusive celebrity club at Cipriani’s Soho in New York City. Celebrities often appear on Porporino’s weekly radio show, “Brunching with Franco,” on AM970 “The Answer,” which airs Sundays at noon. Once a month, he broadcasts live from the restaurant.
Within the past six months, Porporino has been signed as a producer to a large Hollywood production company, he said.

When he spoke to Montclair Local on Saturday, some of the personalities from “Real Housewives of New Jersey” were finishing lunch before heading off to see a film at Montclair Film Festival. And, Porporino said, it’s not only reality stars: United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ate at the restaurant and sent the chef a thank you note.

Porporino’s concept for the restaurant was to have a little bit of the New York glamor of a place like Cipriani’s here in New Jersey.
So there’s some glitz — the palm trees outside come from Miami, he said. It’s the only restaurant on Church Street that offers valet parking.

And there’s serious cuisine.

His mother makes the pasta for Fresco da Franco. And she doesn’t use machines.

The “Help My Yelp” episode was scripted, with storylines, the chef said. He had some input into it. “Enters. Exits. Makes gnocchi.”
He thinks the show picked him because “they wanted a hot-tempered guy. I told one person [on Yelp], ‘You should go back to the Olive Garden.’”

He chuckled as he recalled challenging some of the Yelp reviewers when they filmed. “Monti was kicking me under the table,” he said. But he wouldn’t stop, telling them, “Either turn the camera off, or I’m going to keep going.”

Monti, he said, told him she’d never seen a kitchen like his. Nothing is precooked. The name of the restaurant means “Fresh by Franco,” and Porporino wants to keep it that way. He works behind the line on Friday and Saturday nights.

Filming the show did help him out with some things, especially dealing with his staff: He makes doubly sure servers know and understand all the ingredients in every dish.

The restaurant is relaunching a new menu the day the show goes live.

And he’s learned not to answer back if someone posts an unpleasant experience on Yelp.

Now, he said, “we’ll send out a gift card.”