Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Chef/owner Josh Steiner, baker Emily Methvin, and sous chef Cole Owen are the kitchen team at Strano Sicilian Kitchen, serving family recipes along with updated pastas, pizzas, and seafood.
A fire peeks through the grates of the kitchen’s wood grill when I arrive after lunch to watch Josh Steiner make wood-fired calamari, a big dish in size and flavor. The fire crackles and pops, friendly and inviting like Steiner himself, who looks more like a spry Eagle scout working his campfire than the talented chef/owner of Strano Sicilian Kitchen & Bar, located on the southeast corner of Cooper and Young.
“I built this myself,” Steiner says about the not-so-makeshift grill, tossing in another log from the stack of wood out back. Almost instantly, flames jump higher, and Steiner starts to cook. His tools are simple: tongs and a perforated bun pan. So are his ingredients: Tomatoes, roasted garlic, red onions, julienned zucchini and squash, sliced peppers — red, yellow, and green — and calamari, fresh and rosy like a redhead’s blush and sliced into rings.
“Watch for where the smoke comes up through the holes. That’s the fire’s hot spot,” Steiner explains, shaking the pan’s ingredients with a handful of house seasoning made with fresh herbs from the family’s Germantown vegetable garden.
The calamari cooks quickly — three or four minutes tops — and when it’s garnished with fresh parsley and plated with marinara and a field of mixed greens, I’m transported to some magical place where a pretty white oak forest meets a calm and salty sea.
Like the calamari’s bountiful plate, dishes at Strano unfold with colorful stories, some imagined like mine and others built with real life by Steiner’s immigrant family members now framed in photographs on the restaurant’s dining room walls.
Rosemary Strano is among the group, Steiner’s late Sicilian grandmother, who brought him into the kitchen as a youngster where she expertly made pies, pastries, and pastas. When she died, she left more than 100 hand-written recipes, and those sauce-stained originals inform Steiner’s cooking today.
Other family influences also dance across the menu. Jaqulean Laughter, Steiner’s Moroccan grandmother, steers Grandma’s Spinach Pie, a svelte slice of spinach, fontina, and cheddar in a flaky crust as robust as a much-loved casserole on a holiday table. Pomodoro sauce, bright and balanced, is another family favorite. So are the restaurant’s exceptionally good meatballs, heavily seared on the outside and than finished in sauce for half a day.
Little wonder Steiner cooks without borders, mixing familial traditions from Morocco and Sicily with his Jewish upbringing in Memphis, his training at L’ecole Culinaire, and his work at The Beauty Shop, where he cooked with Karen Carrier’s team until opening Strano nearby in a location that has seen many other restaurants come and go.
An early fan of the energetic young chef, I’ve eaten at Strano a number of times and am happy to see Steiner banishing the location’s uneven history. More recently, my visits started in late summer when we celebrated a friend’s birthday with handcrafted cocktails mixed with house-made limoncello and chilled peach soup made with fennel and cream.
Impulsively, we ordered another course before our entrees, an Italian mosaic of meats and cheeses. We ate with relish, mixing and matching prosciutto di Parma, two kinds of Geneva salami, Gloucester cheese, Havarti with caraway seeds, and a marbled Sage Derby with lavish accessories like house-made jam tucked under blueberries and an oversized spoonful of balsamic caviar, a nod from the kitchen to the magic of molecular gastronomy.
For our entrees, we ordered across the menu. Some headed for wood-grilled comfort food such as expertly prepared tenderloin wrapped with prosciutto. Others like me selected the daily special: trout, nestled on creamy risotto and served with citrus reduction, micro greens, and its tail intact. Fixated on dessert (I’d seen tiramisu and gelato pass by), I carried most of my entree home, scrambling the trout with eggs the next day for a scrumptious Sunday breakfast.
On later visits, the menu transitioned from summer to fall. We embraced the cool weather with a piping hot bowl of butternut squash bisque the color of golden ginkgo leaves and ravioli stuffed with roasted chicken, Buffalo mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes in pesto cream sauce. We lunched and brunched, too, on generously sized pizzas with a shredded five-cheese blend sprinkled on the crust before baking. A fluffy foursome of amaretto pancakes dunked in maple syrup? Yep. We tried those too, along with poached eggs in a bacon Benedict so round and lovely they looked like they popped out of an ice cream scoop.
Typically, we asked a bit sheepishly for more bread. But who wouldn’t? Crusty with a puzzle of air bubbles inside, the garlic ciabatta is the best basket of bread in Memphis, my husband always said. Accolades go to Emily Methvin, a self-taught wiz with a penchant for baking. Along with sous chef Cole Owen, Steiner’s classmate at L’ecole Culinaire, the trio are a Mod Squad of sorts, handling prep, line, and plating for up to 250 customers on busy weekend nights.
For Steiner, the three-person team is by intent, ensuring collaboration, consistent dishes, and the kitchen’s even-handed pace: “If you are rushing like crazy and cutting corners, the food can tell, and the people can tell when they taste it.”
Pam’s Pics: Three to Try
GENOVESE PESTO PIZZA:
Toppings celebrate the seasons on this colorful pizza pie: fall (diced chicken, sun-dried tomatoes), winter (Kalamata olives, roasted peppers), spring (red onions and feta), and the taste of summer: pesto sauce.
A simple start - pizza dough sweeten with sugar and cinnamon, wrapped around a tube, deep-fried, and filled with whipped ricotta – elevates to artistry with sculpted caramel, pistachio crumbs, and roses carved with citrus peel.
Collaboration and whimsy create exceptional cocktails, including a fresh-squeezed blood orange Negroni, a limoncello and prosecco Sicilian 75, and Sage Smash, a heart-warming mix of tequila, lime juice, and muddled sage.
Food: Modern cooking and seasonal ingredients meet treasured family recipes.
Prices: They run the gamut: antipastos ($4 to $20); salads ($8 to $10); pastas ($12-22); entrees ($15 to $32); pizzas and Panini’s ($9 to $23).
Drinks: Strano gets inventive with fresh-squeezed juices and unexpected extras like mint hiding inside ice cubes. Up next? Spiked milkshakes for adults.
Atmosphere: Pick between white tablecloths and windows for people watching in the dining room, a spacious bar, or tables on the patio.
Service: Servers are polished, friendly, and know their food.
Extras: The bar is especially festive when bands play outside at the corner of Cooper and Young.
Noise level: Table talk is easy with a low-key background of classic rock.
Reservations: A good idea, especially on weekends.
Open: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Strano's sous chef Cole Owen tosses dough for one of 10 different pizza combinations at Strano Sicilian Kitchen & Bar.