Veteran Italian chef puts family favorites on antique mall wish lists
The story of Ronnie Grisanti is a long and interesting one, filled with plot twists, characters that weave in and out, and in recent years, a few changes of address.
Something that has remained constant is Grisanti's devotion to excellent Italian food; sticking to the old ways and careful preparation. We were served a miss or two, but for the most part, the food Grisanti is serving from his restaurant inside Sheffield Antiques Mall in Collierville is the same he's been cooking for years.
Ronnie and Frank Grisanti are brothers, but their restaurants aren't affiliated. The late John Grisanti, who owned Grisanti's on Airways, was their uncle. Alex Grisanti, who owns Elfo's in Germantown, is Ronnie's son. When Ronnie Grisanti's on Poplar closed, his son Judd operated Judd Grisanti's from that location for a short time, and Ronnie worked at Elfo's with Alex.
Stay with me. In February, Ronnie took over the restaurant operation at Stella Marris, Steve Cooper's controversial Cordova nightspot and restaurant. But he was done in early May, and within two months had opened Ronnie Grisanti's Italian Restaurant at Sheffield.
History lesson done. Now to the food Ronnie is serving for lunch six days a week and for dinner on Friday and Saturday.
Our first visit was on a Friday night. When I called for reservations, I was told I probably wouldn't need them for two people, but the server who answered the phone said he'd take them, anyway. The restaurant wasn't completely full, but it was very close to it when we arrived at 7 p.m.; I suggest reservations for dinner.
We started with fegatini — fried bacon-wrapped chicken livers. I adore chicken livers, and these did not disappoint. The livers were tender, the bacon and coating crisp. The menu lists a mustard aioli and a pomodoro sauce for dipping, but ours only came with the aioli. Just a few minutes later, when we were able to get our server's attention to get the other sauce, he already had our entrees in hand.
We ordered the pollo Parmesan and specialita de la casa, which is half Elfo Special, half manicotti. The chicken Parmesan was fine, though nothing outstanding. But the specialita isn't called special without reason.
Elfo Special is a Grisanti dish, named after Ronnie and Frank's father. It's spaghetti generously dressed with butter and garlic, full of sauteed mushrooms and shrimp. The shrimp were big, fat and whole at dinner; at lunch the following day, I saw that they'd been cut in halves or thirds. The dish was as good as ever, and the manicotti, filled with a mixture of house-made Italian sausage, beef and spinach, covered with homemade tomato sauce, was excellent.
Portions were very large, and while we packed up about half our food to go, there was just no room for dessert.
For lunch the next day, we went hungry. The toasted ravioli appetizer was good — especially the nutmeg-redolent filling — but the Tuscan butter was the hit. What a delicious mess! Mascarpone and goat cheese are heated, surrounded by a pool of tomato gravy, and served with toasted bread.
Miss Mary's salad, another family staple, was a watery disappointment.
Grisanti was in the kitchen and making his way around tables in the dining room; it can only be assumed that he wasn't dressing the salad. The asparagus bisque, served with bits of lobster and an unexpected but thoroughly delightful puddle of hot chili oil floating on top, was superb.
The best dish we tried was the chicken ravioli, delicate yet bursting with flavor. Pale disks of chicken, ground with garlic and Asiago cheese, were enveloped in tender pasta, hand-formed to puffy pillows. They were served in a shallow bowl, topped with a rich, velvety truffle cream sauce, shiitake mushrooms, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar syrup to brighten all the flavors.
The pollo Tuscanno, a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, prosciutto and smoked Gouda cheese, was also excellent, served over risotto and finished with a cream sauce infused with thyme. That's a lot of cream for lunch, and there was still tiramisu to be tasted, cannoli to be consumed.
So we did, and with gusto. Both are made in-house and are very good. The filling for the cannoli was exceptionally smooth and sweet.
Service is spotty. We had to ask for plates for appetizers, our food was delivered at different times, there was the missing sauce for the chicken livers. Grisanti can undoubtedly correct this, and should, as he seems to have a hearty business.
At night, the restaurant was exceptionally loud. It's in a big antique mall, after all; there's plenty of knicks and knacks to absorb the sound around at floor level, but nothing overhead. While the lunch business was brisk, it was a bit quieter.
As for the atmosphere in general, well, that's going to be a personal thing. Some people will eat at Grisanti's because they plan to spend the day browsing and shopping. Others won't like the distraction, but they'll likely enjoy the food.
Ronnie Grisanti’s Italian Restaurant
Address: 684 West Poplar in Collierville.
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Chicken ravioli ($13, lunch); pollo Tuscanno ($14, lunch); Tuscan butter ($9); specialita de la casa ($19); cannoli and tiramisu ($7 each).
Alcohol: Wine and beer.