“You’ll hear me talk about the house. This is the house, all of us, this place,” says Sous Chef Mike Brady, gesturing to his surroundings. He sits in the private dining room of GianMarco’s Restaurant in the quaint Edgewood neighborhood, where he’s worked since he helped open it with the Respinto family 14 years ago. Brothers Giani and Marco Respinto grew up around their father Gio’s restaurant, the famous Rocco’s Ristorante in New York City. The brothers co-own GianMarco’s, which echoes the cozy, unpretentious, food-centric vibe of their father’s iconic Greenwich Village eatery. And in keeping with traditional, Italian family-owned restaurants, they have earned a small army of loyal regulars and staff members who are all like family now.
“‘House always wins,’” Mike continues, explaining, “Let’s say you were about to be off for the night and a table shows up, well, ‘House wins’—you come back to work. And that’s just a given. No one wants anything bad to happen to where we work, because we’ve all been here for so long, it’s like this is our family. This is who we are. We are GianMarco’s. We bleed it. We love it.”
There’s a lot to love about GianMarco’s. Father Gio greets customers at the host’s stand, enchanting diners with his Italian accent, steeped in the old-world charm of small-town Genoa. The candlelit dining and bar areas are filled with mouthwatering aromas of simmering tomatoes infused with herbs, onions and garlic, while the little log-cabin-style wine bar out back offers woodsy, laid-back charm, along with a diverse selection of wines at retail prices (plus a 20 percent service charge). The extensive traditional northern Italian menu includes homemade pastas cooked to al dente perfection—wild mushroom ravioli with marinara, black truffle paste, porcini and wilted baby spinach; fresh pappardelle with slowly braised Louisiana Chappapeela Farm’s pork shoulder ragu; lasagna bolognese with ground beef, béchamel, tomato sauce and mozzarella, and linguine fradiavolo with shrimp, clams, sausage, tomato, white wine and chili—not to mention the meat, game, fish, seafood and other main dishes and specials served daily.
“They taught me the family recipes over time,” says Mike, who has worked with Giani since he graduated from high school. “They’d say, ‘You’ve mastered the art of this, now it’s time to move on.’ That’s the thing about building this institution: Giani, Marco and their father all teach this style of cooking, and it’s amazing. That’s why I’ve always stuck with it, because you never know what you’re going to learn. It’s more like you’re working together with them than working for them.”
Mike put himself through two years of culinary school at the Art Institute of Atlanta, while continuing to work weekends at GianMarco’s. Despite his formal training, he says, “I’ve always been an apprentice. I’ve never considered myself a chef. I’m a cook. I always will be. Don’t get me wrong—I like to wear the jacket; I went to school; I did all that stuff. But for me, I stick to what I am. I’m an apprentice. I’m a right hand of Giani and Marco.” And he enjoys learning the unique culinary approaches of both his bosses. Marco leans toward a more strictly traditional, Italian comfort-food style. “People come out of the woodwork when Marco makes his braciole,” says Mike. Giani likes to embrace his diverse culinary background working in restaurants from New York and Colorado to South Florida, where he was before coming to open East City Grill at Colonial Brookwood Village. Mike recalls Giani first teaching him cooking techniques, saying, “He showed me fusion. It was this new idea that I had never seen before—that you could fuse foods together like that. I was so young, I couldn’t really grasp this Floridian style, where you pick from the islands and from what you have on hand, and you just make it work. You keep trying and trying until you get that one dish that really sings.”
Mike says they still like to veer off the path of traditional cuisine, which you can see in the inventive nightly specials. Giani will give Mike an idea and Mike runs with it. Then Giani will come back and tweak it. “We are always kicking ideas back and forth and trying new things. That’s why I drove back from Atlanta every weekend for two years, because I love the people and the camaraderie, but also just how much I learn from working here.”
In an industry where the attrition rate is inherently high, this family-run restaurant boasts a kitchen crew that has been on board since the restaurant opened. Mike bucks hierarchical kitchen structure for a more team-based approach, and he praises his colleagues as solid, stand-up people. Each day, Mike or Giani open the restaurant doors and turn the coffee on as the staff slowly trickles in. The crew jokes around as they prep the kitchen for service, and the servers gather to have coffee and learn the daily specials. Almost as a ritual, the waiters snip fresh rosemary from the planters beside the wine bar for the olive oil, which is served with warm bread. “We get the mood going, and then it’s like—boom—work time, and we knock everything out,” says Mike of the team’s routine, which they perform like a jazz ensemble—firing up proteins, noodles and sauces in syncopation as the servers glide through the house. Suffice it to say, the “family” that runs this restaurant seems to extend beyond the Respintos.
Every now and then, Mike asks his NYC-born bosses, “You all still like Birmingham?” They always chuckle and say, “Yeah, we love this place.” In turn, Mike shares what he loves most about his growing career with the Respintos. “I love their philosophy that food doesn’t have to intimidate people. Food should be fun and comforting. I remember the one thing that really stuck with me from culinary school was what the word restaurant meant. It’s a French word meaning to restore and rejuvenate. I think that you should be able to come to a restaurant and really restore yourself, rejuvenate and get back to eating some good food.”
GianMarco’s Restaurant is located at 721 Broadway St. in Homewood. GianMarco’s is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. They are open for lunch Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations are required in the main dining room. It’s first-come, first-served in the bar and wine bar. Learn more by visiting GianMarco’s website or call (205) 871-9622.