With the release of his first cookbook, Frank Grisanti and Sons: The Main Course (Wimmer Cookbooks), lifelong restaurateur Frank Grisanti is doing a barnstorming tour of regional book stores and gourmet shops. He's at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on December 14th and Forty Carrots on Sanderlin on December 15th. Throughout the month, he's traveling from mall to mall, and from Collierville to Oxford, Mississippi, and points beyond, preaching the gospel of fine Italian cooking. Here's some of what Grisanti has to say about passion, pasta, and having a famous name.
Flyer: What do you think about when you hear the word "tradition"?
Frank Grisanti: I think about history. And this cookbook is history. My great-grandfather Rinaldo Grisanti came to America and opened up a restaurant in downtown Memphis in 1909, and there has been at least one Grisanti's restaurant operating in Memphis for almost 100 years. The restaurant moved to Ashlar Hall [in Midtown] and then to Airways and Lamar. These were run by my dad, my uncle, my cousin. ... I worked in restaurants all my life and ran several either with relatives or partners and opened my signature restaurant in East Memphis [at the Embassy suites] 18 years ago.
How has a century in the American South changed the family's approach to Italian cuisine?
You know, it's interesting. When my grandfather had his restaurant, his name was Italian, and that's about it. I think the menu had spaghetti and meatballs, maybe one or two pasta dishes, and not much else in the way of Italian food. The rest was all Southern-style vegetables, fried chicken, fried catfish, and other traditional Southern foods.
I'd say it was American and Italian. For people in the Delta, Italian food meant pasta, and pasta meant spaghetti. They hadn't heard of veal, or manicotti, or cannelloni. The first time I ever served spinach pasta in my restaurant somebody sent it back because they saw the green noodles and thought their food was spoiled. But eventually, as more people moved to Memphis from the north and other places, there started to be more of a demand for the kind of food that we knew and the kind of food that we ate but couldn't sell. Today, I have some steaks and seafood on the menu, but the rest is Italian.
Having grown up in the business, why did you wait so long to write your first cookbook?
I've had a lot of pressure to do a cookbook for a long time, but I wanted to do it right. You can put out an inexpensive [spiral-bound] cookbook like the ones all these clubs put out to raise money, or you can do a nice coffeetable-style book. We wanted to do a nice one, and by the time you have all the photography done, you're looking at a $50,000 investment.
What made you decide it was time to invest?
About 25 years ago, John [Grisanti] did a cookbook that everybody really enjoyed. It went out of print and for some reason the family decided not to do another edition. We'd get calls all the time from people who wanted to find a copy of John's cookbook. We also have people who are always asking, "Who's Elfo?" or "How are you related to John?" or "Do you have anything to do with Ronnie?" We thought it would be fun not only to do a cookbook but to do a history of the family from the first restaurant on Main Street right up until the present. And, you know, I won't always be around, and it's good to know that when I'm gone there will be this piece of history for anybody who wants to know about the Grisanti family.
Are you one of those chefs who refuse to disclose their favorite dish?
I've always been partial to Elfo's Special, which is a buttered pasta dish tossed with shrimp and mushrooms. That's been a trademark dish for the Frank Grisanti family, and I think it's got to be the number-one most published recipe in the region.
Any advice for someone looking to become an accomplished Italian cook?
You've got to have passion. If you can go to Italy, go and learn all you can while you are there. Surround yourself with people who are passionate about cooking. The more exposure you have, the better you'll be.
Frank Grisanti signs The Main Course at Davis-Kidd, 6-8 p.m., Wednesday, December 14th, and at Forty Carrots, 3:30-5:30 p.m., Thursday, December 15th.