Elfo's Restaurant in Germantown makes a bold statement long before the first plate of food arrives at your table. Located in the building where Three Oaks Grill used to be, on a cozy stretch of old Germantown Road south of Poplar, the design of the new Elfo's is glamorous and refined. It's a conspicuous contrast to its across-the-street neighbor, the down-home Germantown Commissary serving barbecue in a former general store.
Open since June 2, Elfo's is modern and minimal, with brick and stucco walls painted a crisp white and ceilings of wide, charcoal-colored cypress timbers. There's floating cork over the bar, an imposing expanse of earth-colored marble, with low plush couches beside it and a low-key flat-screen television above.
Tables are arranged in a series of alcoves and rectangular rooms, so that in spite of the luster, it's also a comfortable place to be. It was designed to suggest a Miami/L.A. aesthetic, says Alex Grisanti, 38, who owns and runs Elfo's as well as Ronnie Grisanti's restaurant on Poplar with his wife, Kim, and father, Ronnie. (The Grisantis, of course, are a Memphis culinary dynasty: Alex's uncle, Frank Grisanti, has Frank Grisanti's and Bol a Pasta restaurants, and his brother, Judd, has Spindini Downtown.)
On Saturday night at Elfo's, there was a general sense of prosperity in the dining rooms and no hint of the gloomy doings on Wall Street. At 6 p.m., just before the crowds started arriving, servers were gathered at the bar discussing the important news -- "Michigan's defense is stellar!" -- and Archie Bell & the Drells were doing the "Tighten Up" on the sound system.
The menu is a contemporary take on what Alex Grisanti describes as Northern Italian "oldies but goodies": Pizza on thin crust, an Italian Hero sandwich and a Grinder with sausage and gravy, chicken and veal Parmigiana, ravioli with chicken and pork, a lasagna with beef and sausage. This is a modern kitchen delivering confident versions of traditional Tuscan dishes.
We ordered the antipasto plate -- a colorful and hearty collection of plump black and green olives, freshly roasted and marinated red peppers, slices of artichoke, beautiful cuts of ham and salami. (Two of us couldn't eat it all; we had already requested a to-go box before the salad arrived.)
There are intriguing salads on the Elfo's menu -- the "Sun-Dried Tomato Caesar" with blackened salmon, and the "D&G," lettuce with mortadella (which we'd already had in the antipasto), prosciutto and bacon -- but sentiment ruled. We got Miss Mary's Salad, a Grisanti family staple that is glorious in its simplicity. The dressing is the thing -- Alex's uncle, the late John Grisanti, used to tell his cooking classes the recipe was a secret; Alex reported that besides olive oil and red wine vinegar, there's red wine and lemon juice, and a few other things. ... It's a triumph of perfectly balanced ordinary ingredients.
And so is that other Grisanti family stalwart, the Elfo Special, named for Alex's grandfather. This dish of pasta, mushrooms and shrimp sauteed in garlic and butter is a Memphis treasure, like Rendezvous ribs.
The "Eggplant Napoleon" is a charming plate of eggplant slices in crisp batter separated by slices of gold tomatoes and zucchini, with buffalo mozzarella served on angel hair pasta and Pomodoro sauce, garnished by dollops of pesto. Diners near us ordered the daily fish and beef specials, which looked pretty spectacular, but on to dessert.
If you go to Elfo's, the cannoli is not optional. Alex's version uses a creamy white Mascarpone cheese, studded with pistachios and chocolate chunks. You have got to have it. But you also have to have the flourless Tuscan molten chocolate cake on a crème anglaise. It's a sophisticated brownie, in the shape of a large cupcake, that Alex created 14 years ago while in Italy working with cookbook author Lorenza De' Medici.
Address: 2285 S. Germantown Road, Germantown
Telephone: (901) 753-4017
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Handicapped access: Yes
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar.
Don't miss: This is Northern Italian cuisine with confidence: Get pasta and/or pizza.
What's hot: The Tuscan molten chocolate cake.
What's new: The location, the stylish redesign of the building.