photographs by Justin Fox Burks
My first visit to Rizzo’s Diner in the South Main Arts District was memorable in a number of ways. Its urban shotgun layout reminded me of tiny eateries in Brooklyn, and its basil tomato bisque was flavorful and pretty. But the standout moment was my friend’s body shudder and shoulder dip when he sampled a G.E. Patterson burger off another friend’s plate. Speechless, he savored the taste for a moment or two and then promptly ordered a second lunch.
Rizzo was Chef Michael Patrick’s nickname as a teenager. He drew further inspiration from boyhood memories of a Cleveland sub shop called Mr. Hero’s and reinvented the classic American burger with a one-two-three punch: a soft Hoagie roll cradle, beef patties, cheese, and oven-roasted tomatoes in the middle; and a perky topping of Creole mustard and Italian vinaigrette.
The burger is the first item on the lunch menu at Rizzo’s Diner and is the prelude for what’s to come: classy comfort food shaped by yin-yang flavors, indigenous ingredients, and Patrick’s Memphis and Midwestern sensibilities. “I wanted to do a menu with a Memphis feel at a restaurant where I could afford to eat,” Patrick says.
Another reason the food at Rizzo's is so accessible is that Patrick doesn't hesitate to pull out from his back pocket popular dishes he developed for other restaurants.
Touché. Happily for us, Patrick understands the successful pairing of palate and price point. The lunch menu tops out at $12 with a South Main Salad of spinach, arugula, candied pecans, pickled peppers, and plum-bacon vinaigrette topped by grilled salmon, crispy on the edges and moist inside. Sandwiches, served with potato salad or mixed greens, range from andouille sausage to open-faced roast beef with gravy and garlic mashed (more like smashed) potatoes.
Daily specials for lunch and dinner keep the menu lively, especially soups (try the chicken chili) and vegetables, part of the blue plate at lunch or the vegetarian plate at dinner. Patrick’s squash casserole set a new standard, making me want to rush home and order squash seeds for my summer garden. Casseroles can be good for you, right?
Another reason the food at Rizzo’s is so accessible is that Patrick doesn’t hesitate to pull from his back pocket popular dishes he developed for other restaurants. He’s worked for quite a few. Since 1997 when he came to Memphis to open EP Delta Kitchen on Beale, Patrick has cooked for Erling Jensen, Automatic Slim’s, McEwen’s on Monroe, and Sekisui Pacific Rim. He opened Rizzo’s in October, partnering with investors Mark and Cynthia Grawemeyer, who also are renovating the historic Pullman Hotel around the corner with a deli and a fashion boutique.
One of Patrick’s signature dishes is Scallops-n-Grits, a dish he started at McEwen’s and reintroduced at Rizzo’s with cheddar grits from the Grit Girl in Oxford, seasoned greens, and a lemon beurre blanc sauce. Another crowd-pleaser is the Lobster Pronto Pup, which pays homage to the pup’s invention in Memphis.
Across the board, the Rizzo’s menu is friendly and inventive. The chorizo meatloaf, for example, grew from 10 pounds of chorizo sausage Patrick received for his birthday. He experimented with different recipes before settling on the final version: ground beef and chorizo in a three-to-one mix topped with a sublime green-tomato gravy.
Desserts at Rizzo’s change regularly (chocolate mousse silk pie!), but you can’t miss with the ice-cream sandwich banana split. Order one for the table and then dig in: strawberries, pecans, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a mint leaf on top.
While the food at Rizzo’s should satisfy almost anyone, the ambience of the place won’t. With two-tops stacked in a row, Rizzo’s is upbeat and loud for weekend dinners. We were squeezed in next to the coffee machine on a Saturday night, but we liked the friendly vibe of the kitchen just fine. Larger groups should check out the diner’s repurposed back room, where a cheerful fire, rough-hewn red painted walls, and Christmas lights on the ceiling whisk you away to New York City.