VOL. 124 | NO. 234 | Monday, November 30, 2009
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
Spindini Chef, Co-owner Leaves To Restart Grisanti Tradition
By FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News
Judd Grisanti has opened JG Italia Cucina in the location of his father's former restaurant. -- PHOTO BY BOB BAYNE
He calls men and women “baby.” He loves to cook and to be out in the restaurant dining room, because as much as he loves cooking, he loves people. His eyes tear up when he talks about his children or his mother or father.
He is Judd Grisanti, and he has just made one of the most dramatic changes the restaurant industry in Memphis has seen.
Grisanti was part-owner, executive chef and figurehead of the incredibly popular Spindini, the restaurant on South Main Street that’s hard to get into, one that has become a scene, a dedicated stop on the maps of the young and the restless.
But he walked away from all that to buy the restaurant his father, longtime local restaurateur Ronnie Grisanti, closed Aug. 29 after 25 years, Ronnie Grisanti & Sons. The restaurant that has opened in its place is JG Italia Cucina.
Spindini now is operated by River City Management Group, a restaurant consulting firm that runs Downtown restaurants Rum Boogie Café, the Tap Room and King’s Palace Café on Beale Street and Mesquite Chop House and Papa Pia’s on Union Avenue.
“2855 Poplar is where I grew up,” Judd Grisanti recently said as he sat at a makeshift desk in one of the eating areas, surrounded by the portraits, murals, framed testimonials and signatures on the walls that gave Ronnie Grisanti & Sons part of its unique atmosphere. He paused to speak to his contractor or to workmen who approached with questions about new restroom fixtures or a paint color.
Pointing behind him, Grisanti, 42, said, “That kitchen is where my heart is. I learned everything here, the cooking, the business, the tough skin, all the tools.”
Despite the remarkable and unexpected success of Spindini, which opened in early 2007, Grisanti said not all was well.
“It didn’t feel right,” he said. “I mean, it was a good time – a great time – everybody was happy, but it wasn’t 100 percent me. When I heard that my daddy’s restaurant was available, I told my investors that we needed to work out another deal, because I was going back to 2855 Poplar.”
So, returning to “2855” is a homecoming for Grisanti, but, as he admits, it wasn’t always a happy home.
About his departure from Ronnie Grisanti & Sons in 2006, he was blunt: “I didn’t leave. I was asked to leave.”
He paused to hold back tears.
“Daddy taught me everything, but he has problems, he can be difficult. (Grisanti’s younger brother) Alex was across the street at Elfo’s, and it was me and Daddy here. I just, I had to make everybody accountable. It didn’t go down well.”
The concept for a different restaurant had been turning in his mind for some time when, as he put it, “the chance to leave” suddenly came. He put together a group of investors, and they took a chance by buying the former Glasshouse 383 gallery on South Main and hiring archimania to turn it into a destination.
When Spindini opened, it was about the only thing happening at night along that stretch of South Main. (Other spots since have opened, including gastropub South of Beale.)
“When we were putting it all together, I would go at night and stand in the middle of the street and look at the building and wonder where the people were going to come from,” Grisanti said. “And then I would go home and cry myself to sleep.”
But come they did, and Grisanti reveled in it.
“I love people,” he said. “I love the business, and I love to make people happy. It all became bigger than we had anticipated. Sure, there was stress; there were problems. That always happens when there are a lot of employees and a lot of money moving around. But when you see the people in the dining room and they’re all happy, well, the problems all go away.”
Adding to the stress was the fact that when he was trying to get Spindini open, Grisanti was going through a divorce. He conceded that perhaps he spent too much time in the dining room at Spindini and not enough time in the kitchen.
“I was the figurehead,” he said. “I made myself available for everybody. That won’t happen here. When you come to JG Italia Cucina, if you want to see me, you’ll have to peek in the kitchen.”
Now in the kitchen at Spindini is Joe Cartwright, former executive chef at Lolo’s Table and a chef at Interim. Preston Lamm, owner of River City Management Group, said the casual yet dynamic concept of Spindini will remain the same.
“We’ve made a few changes in the menu,” Lamm said. “We changed the wine list. Other than that, we’ll run it on the same lines as before.”
Grisanti, who still is negotiating with his former investors for his buy-out, said he intends to stay involved with Spindini in some fashion.
“That’s possible,” Lamm said. “Right now, we want him to take a sabbatical so he can concentrate on opening his father’s restaurant again. We enjoy working together. You never know what may happen in the future.”
The father’s restaurant and the son’s restaurant will look much the same, but freshened with new paint and rearranged. One tradition the son is not keeping is the long recitation of specials that preceded every meal at the old restaurant, a piece of waiter’s theater that could become tedious.
“That was never my idea,” said Judd Grisanti. “That always made me cringe.”