photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Frank Grisanti and his son, Larkin, serve new dishes and long-standing favorites at their restaurant inside Embassy Suites.
Nothing takes me back more quickly to the restaurants of my childhood than a package of Italian bread sticks, dipped one-by-one into a scoop of soft butter. So I was already in a happy place when our server at Frank Grisanti placed a platter of three meatballs, hand-rolled and hefty, in the center of our table. Rapturous, I breathed in garlic, Parmesan, and basil, and then slipped my fork into the marinara sauce cradling each one. Finally, I took a bite, and then another, charmed by the satiable flavors of ground pork, chopped onions, parsley, and capers.
For two more Friday nights, Frank Grisanti’s meatballs lulled me back to his restaurant at Embassy Suites, where I ate with different friends but delivered the same admonition for appetizers: “We’re getting the meatballs, and we can share.” Uniformly, they embraced my enthusiasm, but also ordered excellent starters of their own: chicken livers wrapped with bacon; prosciutto shrimp decorated with fresh rosemary; and calamari, sliced into half-inch circles along with the tentacles, lightly fried, and brightened with lemon juice squeezed through cheesecloth to catch flyaway seeds. A spicy marinara for dipping came alongside.
Grisanti’s customers will likely recognize longtime appetizers such as toasted ravioli, but the meatballs are new, part of a recent overhaul to update the restaurant’s menu. Traditionalists, however, shouldn’t worry. The menu still includes well-muscled favorites such as manicotti, beef lasagna, and Mr. Willie’s chili mac under the heading 552 S. Main, where Frank’s grandparents, uncle, and father opened a downtown restaurant in the mid-1950s.
The Elfo special, created by Frank’s father as an impromptu answer to no-meat Fridays, also joins the group. A mainstay of spaghetti, shrimp, and mushrooms tossed in garlic butter sauce, the dish is popular and storied. In fact, the late gourmand and horror king Vincent Price included recipes for the Elfo special and the family’s Italian spinach in A Treasury of Great Recipes, the 1965 cookbook he co-authored with his wife, Mary. (Oysters Justine, a signature dish at the time from Justine’s restaurant, was the only other Memphis recipe included in the couple’s 500-page book.)
Frank Grisanti Italian Restaurant, which opened in 1987 along with the all-suite hotel, continues to build on the family’s celebrated history. Ellen Grisanti, Frank’s wife, works at the restaurant several days a week. The couple’s son, Larkin Grisanti, runs the restaurant’s busy kitchen, which over the years has trained many young chefs, including Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, chef/owners of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Hog & Hominy, who worked at Frank Grisanti before attending culinary school.
With such gastronomic and community ties, it’s tempting to stick with familiar fare at Frank Grisanti, which is exactly what I did on my first visit to the restaurant in almost a decade. But for subsequent dinners, I grew bolder, moving from eggplant Parmesan (delicious!) to the pleasing geometry of a bone-in pork chop served with Dijon peppercorn sauce and a Roma tomato carved like a tulip in spring.
Other new dishes also piqued the interest of my dinner companions. Blackened grouper, one of five ways the kitchen will prepare fresh fish if customers ask, and Memphis-centric penne baked with spicy braised pork, mozzarella, and fresh basil were both full-flavored and filling. Two other dishes, however, could benefit from a lighter touch. Too much pancetta drowned an otherwise good rigatoni with mushrooms and brandy cream sauce. And a bright tangy pesto tossed with Parmesan and pasta couldn’t altogether compensate for half-a-dozen scallops pan-seared too long.
If we’d thought to mention our small disappointments, I’m certain Grisanti’s excellent wait staff would have made things right. But we were too busy having fun with a three-hour meal stretching into a bottle of Chianti, a second round of drinks, and a pretty bowl of raspberry sherbet topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Certainly, the menu’s comforting plates and dated decor also encouraged our mid-century bonhomie, one I hope won’t be entirely lost in the restaurant’s upcoming renovation.
Pamela Denney is food editor of Memphis magazine and writes the blog Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew.
Served as a stand-alone appetizer or an entrée on pasta, these hearty favorites weigh in at 4 ounces each and easily stand up to trendy imposters at Brooklyn restaurants that cost twice as much.
Good luck saving room for dessert, but if you do, order a threesome of apple ravioli. Deep-fried and dusted with confectioner’s sugar, they snuggle happily against cinnamon gelato and a drizzle of caramel sauce.
A generous portion of Atlantic sole, prepared traditionally with lemon, capers, and butter, blankets a bed of angel hair pasta cooked al dente for a more contemporary twist to an established Italian classic.