Family owned and operated, GianMarco's serves the finest authentic Italian fare.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Less than three years ago, GianMarco's opened in Homewood and quickly became a neighborhood favorite. Soon afterwards, recommendations of their authentic, Italian cuisine and treat you like family service brought diners from far beyond the neighborhood. And today brothers, Giani and Marco Respinto and their father Giovanni's restaurant is a small, "Italian" landmark for Birmingham area diners.
Yet this family is not new to the restaurant business. Giani and Marco were born into their father's restaurant in Greenwich Village-Rocco's. "We grew up running around the tables. By the time we were seven-years-old, we were in the kitchen helping butcher legs of veal with the chefs. And we continued working in the restaurant until we grew up," Marco recalls. Although the two dreamed of owning their own restaurant, eventually their culinary careers took them in different directions.
Meanwhile, Giovanni made a move of his own. "At age 58, I said, 'that's it! I'm retiring.' And I moved to Pompano Beach," he says. Giovanni's sons later followed him to Florida, Marco as the chef of a catering company and Giani as the managing partner of a restaurant company.
Giani's position brought him to Birmingham to oversee the opening of East City Grill at Brookwood Village. And he decided it was here that he would stay. "I fell in love with Birmingham and never left," he says. "I called my brother and asked him to come visit." Marco also loved the city, so Giovanni was then invited to visit too. "My dad was turning into a raisin in Florida, so I thought we could put him back to work."
"After 10 years in Florida I was going out of my mind. So I came to Birmingham, and said, 'this is good. This is a place to start a business.' Then I moved here, and put all my savings in the new restaurant," Giovanni says. "Now at 72-years-old, I never felt so good. I run the dining room, and my children run the kitchen." Marco is the executive chef, and Giani serves as sommelier, managing the beverage program. "Sometimes we step on each other's toes. I stick my nose in their business, or they stick their nose in mine. But at the end of the evening we open a bottle of wine, and everything is fine."
GianMarco's atmosphere is a welcoming synthesis of Italian charm and Southern hospitality. Entering through its separate bar, neighborhood patrons line the stools, and aromas of Italian sauces lead to the softly lit dining room. Here tall draped windows serve as a backdrop to the candle lit tables and open kitchen-where servers stand awaiting the plates of food verses the food getting cold waiting for servers. "People wait for pasta. Pasta does not wait for people," Giani explains.
The Italian menu is paired with a chef driven, food friendly wine menu that reflects the Respinto's loyalties to both their home and their heritage-American and Italian. Available by the glass, the bottle, or even better is the quartino-a carafe of one and one half glasses. "A quartino is ideal for those who want more than just a glass and for the couple who doesn't share the same wine palate," Giani explains. He also makes wine accessible by making it affordable. "I find most restaurants' mark up on wine ridiculous. People cannot afford to have a full dining experience with wine prices so high. Here, there is a bottle or a quartino on every table. That's the Italian way."
Linger over a carafe of Caparzo Rosso Di Montalcino 2001. This food friendly Tuscan Sangiovese is a deep ruby red with a full and persistent bouquet of violets, raspberries, and pomegranate. Or for a white, the Broglia Gavi di Gavi 2003 from Piedmont offers aromas of peaches, pears, and melons. Both wines pair well with the menu of daily specials-including two fin fish, another seafood, two meats, a game or braised meat-and the extensive, seasonal dinner menu.
Among the list of 13 antipastos is Fritto Misto. This combination of fried ravioli Bolognese, risotto and prosciutto ball, and mozzarella in carozza with roasted yellow tomato sauce is almost a meal in itself. Served on a chilled, marble lazy Susan are regional Italian cheeses, selected by sous chef-and cheese connoisseur-Michael Brady, and paired with his condiments of Italian quince jam, fig jam, and a luscious lavender honey. Yet Marco's Cheese Torta is a divine signature dish. This stack of red, white, and green layers of mascarpone, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, balsam, and evo makes a scrumptious spread for the crostini, "little toasts."
And the steaming plates of Italian made pastas have that Old World texture reminiscent of the pastas enjoyed in Italy. Spaghetti with Marco's Sunday Sauce is topped with two baseball size meatballs and a sweet Italian sausage, cooked in his sauce and finished with grana padano and parsley. And the Rigatoni AI Quattro Formaggi is a creamy and comforting short tube pasta dish of four cheeses-asiago fontina, Gorgonzola, and mozzarella-simmered in cream with prosciutto and fresh sage.
With 16 main plates, the choice is difficult, but Marco's melt in your mouth pan-roasted grouper accompanied by calamata olives, onions, garlic, caper berries, potatoes, and marinara is highly recommended. "I buy the freshest ingredients from the proteins to the herbs. All herbs are organically grown, and some are grown in our garden in front of the building. I make all the sauces fresh each day using the best imported Italian tomatoes," Marco says. Also made fresh are Flourless Chocolate Torte with Vanilla Gelato, New York Style Cheesecake, and Panettone Bread Pudding from his don't miss dessert menu.
For the Respitnos, the family tradition continues with a third generation now helping in the restaurant. "Just as my father had his two sons working in his restaurant, now my sons Michael and Joey spend time here with me, cleaning shrimp. And Michael waits tables a couple of days a week," Marco says with pride.
With each generation and each passing year, GianMarco's improves with age. "Approaching our third year in business, we want to continue to do it better," Giani says. "But we also want people to know what to expect when theycome here." As GianMarco's continues to meet and exceed the expectations of many loyal patrons, they are already satisfied that nobody can do it better.
Address: 721 Broadway Street
Published January 2006 Birmingham magazine