Gianmarco’s may be best known for its food, but at its core, it’s really all about family. The Homewood institution has been family owned and operated since the doors first opened back in 2003, and we caught up with them to learn about their history, their culinary inspirations, and what’s next for Gianmarco’s.
Started by Giovanni, Giani, and Marco Respinto, the father and sons brought their culinary expertise to the Magic City by way of New York City. Giani and Marco were born and raised between New York and New Jersey, and Giovanni ran an Italian restaurant in the Big Apple for more than 30 years. “My brother and I were practically raised in it,” adds Giani.
Prior to migrating to Birmingham, however, the brothers ventured out elsewhere. In fact, at one time, Giani was convinced he would never work in the restaurant industry again. “When I was young and left home to go to school, I told my father I would never serve another veal parmesan,” Giani says. “I went off to school convinced I would never do it again. It went full circle, and now that’s what I do, but we do the best veal parmesan.”
Before serving the best veal parmesan to all of Birmingham, Giani actually came to Birmingham on another mission: to help another restaurant company open up a new eatery at Brookwood Village. But it wasn’t too long before he saw an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up. He stumbled across a small grocery store in the Edgewood neighborhood of Homewood, and its owners were looking to retire. Giani had the idea to take over the space. “At that time, everyone thought it was crazy to open up a restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Giani says. “It was unheard of back then, but where we came from, it was normal.”
With that in mind, Giani took over the space and began repurposing it to house a restaurant. He also knew precisely who to call to join him. His father had retired from his restaurant in New York City, but, as Giani puts it, “He wasn’t really enjoying retirement, so the stars aligned for him to come on board.” His brother then decided to make the move from South Florida to join in as well. With it being a new family venture, it also made naming the establishment rather easy for the trio: Gian for Giovanni and Giani, and Marco, obviously for Marco.
In addition to bringing the whole family to Birmingham, the restaurant also brought their previous experience with and passion for Italian food. From the very beginning, many of the options the family put on the menu at Gianmarco’s were based upon the very dishes they served in New York City, which has a much different approach than the typical Italian food found in the South.
“Southern Italian food is different from Northern Italian food,” Giani explains. “When you look back in history, Italian immigrants who came in through New Orleans stayed below the Mason Dixon line, so their version of Italian dishes is a little different from the food prepared by immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Italians are regional people, so they adapt their dishes to the ingredients [that are prevalent] where they are. Even if the dish has the same name, it can be very different. At Gianmarco’s, we do New York Italian food.”
Their New York Italian food has been a hit, including many dishes that have become outright Birmingham favorites, such as the Veal Scallopini Piccata, Veal Scallopini Marsala, and Chicken Breast Francese. There are also menu mainstays, including Penne Vodka and — the dish Giani once swore he would never serve again — Veal Chop Parmesan. “Every night, we also have pasta specials, appetizer specials, meat specials, fish specials, and even dessert specials,” Giani says. “Those daily specials rotate frequently, and it’s what many of our most frequent diners seek out.”
Though the specials may change daily, what never changes at Gianmarco’s (and to which any frequent diner can certainly attest) is the fresh, quality ingredients. That’s what drives each and every plate or bowl that comes out of Gianmarco’s kitchen. “We live by the motto ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” Giani says. “You have to start with good ingredients to make good food.”
That’s especially true with Italian dishes, Giani explains. If done properly, authentic Italian food is relatively simple with few ingredients. With that in mind, the restaurant uses high-quality ingredients and grows its own herbs. They soon hope to extend the garden and add much more to it, from corn peppers and heirloom tomatoes to arugula, asparagus, and eggplant. “We’d love to be able to grow for ourselves many of the things we use,” Giani says. “Our goal is to have that going in the spring, depending on how green our thumb can be.”
In the meantime, Giani and Marco — and Giovanni when he’s in, though he is mostly retired now — focus on offering the very best Italian food in Birmingham. One way Giani manages to do that is by making bi-annual trips to Italy, where he continues to hone his craft and seek out new ideas and wines for the already spectacular wine list. “Going to Italy a couple of times a year grounds me,” Giani explains. “In Italy, less is more when it comes to food. So, when I come back, I’m fresh and looking at ways to do things even better. We’re always looking to improve.”
All photography provided.
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