Cooking Italian In Memphis

In the Barbecue Capital of the World, it's hard for any restaurant to go toe-to-toe with the city's favorite food. But Andrew Ticer, 32, and Michael Hudman, 31, friends since the sixth grade and the chef-owners of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in East Memphis, are hotter than a Tennessee heat wave in July. They've introduced Memphians to what they call "a fresh perspective on traditional Italian." Put another way, they tell me, it's their unique brand of "Grandma cooking—with a southern twist." The (well-heeled) crowd keeps coming. And eating.

You both were born and raised in Memphis. Just how connected are you to authentic Italian cooking?

Andrew: We're both second-generation Italians. But we're connected to Italian food through our grandmother was from Senigalia, Italy.

Michael: ...and mine was from Alessandria in Piedmont.

Even as young teenagers, you wanted to open an Italian restaurant together. How? Why?

Michael: Because of our families. Our grandmothers. I grew up thinking that we were the only family in Memphis that spent our entire Sunday cooking and eating. Until I met Andy. For both of us, our Sunday meals were all-day affairs filled with great memories. Young as we were, we knew it was an experience that we wanted to recreate for others.

Is it a challenge to collaborate as two friends who own a restaurant — and cook together?

Andrew: No. Actually, it's easier because we've been friends for so long. We keep each other grounded.

Michael: We bring different assets to the table. We both played sports (basketball, football, baseball), so we're always competitive with each other—in a friendly way. But we also know which hot buttons NOT to push!

Your restaurant is an actual house?

Andrew: Yes. It's a 1940s ranch-style house that was a private house. We've got 38 seats in the dining room; 54, if you include the bar. And we have our own vegetable and herb garden here, too. We wanted people to feel as though they were really coming to "our house" for dinner.

You've had a lot of culinary training: Johnson & Wales; an 18-month stint at Chez Philippe in Memphis; the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria; a two-month eating tour of Italy. How did that inform your cooking?

Michael: Italy flipped our cooking philosophy upside down. Italians cook, using what's fresh around them. We do the same. We cook traditional Italian, using Southern ingredients, like bok choy, which grows like weeds around here. We change our menu seasonally. We use an entire animal, nose-to-tail. Our menu features four or five pastas, all of which we make in-house. We don't over-sauce our pasta; sauce is more like a condiment. lasagna?

Michael: We don't do baked pastas because we feel the best baked pastas come out of a wood-burning oven.

Or pizza?

Andrew: People ask about pizza all the time. But we don't do pizza here because, again, we don't have a wood-burning brick oven; that's the only way to make pizza. Next venture!

Michael: You have to have that blistered, bubbly crust. If we make pizza, we're going to do it right, which means waiting until we get that wood-burning brick oven.

What did you find to be an acquired taste in Italy?

Michael: For me, initially, it was tripe. And blood pudding. Now, I'm a tripe-aholic!

Andrew: Bollito misto. We ate a mixed bollito misto—that included some feet, tail, and head—at an agriturismo, where they had just slaughtered the pig. It smelled and tasted like barnyard. I'll be honest: it was a hard meal to swallow! With salsa verde, it was a completely different product; but, that said, it was still really hard to shake off that first flavor impression!

Michael: Now, we cook bollito misto for our Friday staff lunch.

What's the biggest difference between Italian food you find in Memphis and Italian food in Italy?

Andrew: In Memphis, you'll find a lot of Italian-American restaurants or chain-type places. We're unique in our Italian-Italian approach.

Has anyone complained about your portion sizes?

Andrew: Oh yeah! They did in the beginning. Our portions are more European-style (smaller) and that took a while—maybe the first year (2008) we were open—before people understood and accepted the type of Italian food we were doing.

What about the guy who comes in and orders fettuccini Alfredo and a Corona Light?

Michael: As long as the guy isn't a jerk about it...

Andrew: ...and if that's what he likes, we'll make it for him. And it will be the best fettuccini Alfredo he ever had! If that's your preference and that's your palate, we'll make it for you. We get that everybody likes different things. I still put A-1 Sauce on my steaks—I can't help it!

Any surprising off-the-menu requests lately?

Michael: Yes. Last week, we had this a beautiful 70-pound Alaskan halibut, which we used to create a special dish—roasted halibut with pistachio puree, cooked in a ham hock broth, with bok choy sautéed with freshly squeezed orange juice and tarragon. When we sent it out to a customer, he asked for tartar sauce!! We don't even have mayonnaise. But we gave him the best "tartar sauce"—

Andrew: —we made a roasted garlic aioli and added our own house-pickled fennel and celery, chopped fine.

Michael: He came back to the kitchen, told us it was amazing and that he would be back. And that's the point...we want them to come back! We have customers who come in and want us to do a dish that we did two years ago, and if they give us two days notice, we'll do it for them.

You're fans of sous vide. How do you use it?

Andrew: We use it on pork, sometimes, but it's a really great method for chicken because we can cook it super precisely and the result is a very juicy chicken. The chicken with polenta, mushrooms, heirloom carrots, and smoked jus that's on our menu now is cooked sous vide. We break down the whole chicken, smoke the bones out back in the smoker, then make a chicken stock with the smoked bones. Voilà, smoked jus.

Pork rules in Memphis. What's your favorite pork?

Andrew: We always use Newman Farms. We buy a whole hog, and Mr. Newman himself drives up from Myrtle, Missouri, to deliver it.

Michael: It's Berkshire heritage pork. Certified humane. And the only pork Andy and I will ever use.

Your signature starter, the "A/M Breakfast", is a top-seller. What's your secret?

Andrew: Well, it features a 63˚ sous vide poached egg over creamy polenta, Newman Farms pork belly, and house-made pork rinds. And one secret to getting light and crispy pork rinds is to take all the fat off.

How long do you have to poach the egg to get it to 63˚? And why 63˚?

Andrew: One hour at 63˚Celsius. It's just the texture of the yolk and the whites that we like. It took us about two weeks to figure it out.

Michael: Two weeks and at least five dozen eggs!

Maw Maw's ravioli is another popular dish at the restaurant. Would you mind sharing the secret to the gravy?

Andrew: Chicken gizzards are the secret ingredient!

Michael: It's got pork, chicken, veal and a local pork sausage, made by one of my grandmother's cousins, that we use. But the honest secret is that we still make that gravy in my grandmother's pot—at her house! Actually, my father makes the gravy for us every week. My grandmother (Maw Maw) showed my father how to make the gravy before she died. So, my dad knows all her tricks. Andy and I are very superstitious! None of our restaurant equipment touches that sauce...

Does your nose-to-tail cooking require some personal selling?

Andrew: Yes. We have a lot of customers who let us cook for them. Beef heart. Lamb liver. Anything. But we'll only tell them what they've eaten after the meal so they don't have to think about it.

We have "No Menu Mondays" on the last Monday of every month. You make a reservation and let us know if you have any allergies. Then you're fair game. Over five courses, we serve you whatever we want. You don't get a menu until the end of dinner. The first two months we tried it, we couldn't get eight people in for dinner. Now, we're booked two months in advance!

Ever been to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen? Is it as good as it sounds? Let us know in the comments.