The Memphis Mafia

Bob Bayne
by John. T. Edge - Tennessee - June/July 2011

Italian meets Southern at Andrew Michael

There they are amid grape-laden trellises in the Mazara Valley of Sicily. Over there, they stand tall in front of the Colosseum in Rome. Scattered throughout Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, large-format photos of chefs and owners Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman adorn the walls.

Sometimes the boys smile goofily at the camera, like teenagers who just snuck a drink or a smoke. In other portraits they stare keenly, aware, somehow, that the food in hand or the vista in sight will prove formative in the decades to come. Each photograph broadcasts a bond, one that the boys—now in their early thirties—have been honing since they met in sixth grade here in Memphis and soon decided that they would open a restaurant together.

Ticer, tall and shaggy, and Hudman, compact and intense, realized that goal in late 2008. Two years later, in the midst of a Memphis restaurant-scene renaissance, I walked past a Francis Bacon–inspired oil painting of the boys butchering a hog and took my place in the earth-toned dining room that looks all the more luxe when you consider that this subdued and cushy lair was once a ranch-style home on a suburban loop street.

The pair have pedigrees. They graduated from Johnson & Wales culinary school in America. And the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, too. They did stages at family-owned bistros in Lyon, the arguable gastronomic capital of France. Back home, they worked under José Gutierrez, who once led the kitchen brigade at Chez Philippe in the Peabody hotel in Memphis.

Those pedigrees shine through in their cooking, in entrées like roasted pheasant, served with a sage- and chestnut-threaded risotto and a caramel-toned sauce. And a pork chop, sourced from the much-heralded Newman Farm in Missouri, cooked to pink perfection and ringed with verdant spinach gnocchi. Order their breakfast-for-dinner appetizer and you get a basin’s worth of polenta, topped with a sous vide–cooked egg and a slab of pork belly that’s four times as thick as grocery store bacon and twice as flavorful. Fried-to-order pork rinds—used to convey egg and polenta from plate to maw—represent the best of what this fusion of Italian and Southern produces.

All that said, the duo rely on their grandmothers for true gravitas. In dishes like lasagnette made with fat shawls of free-form pasta and creamed pork ragu. And spaghetti carbonara, tossed with spicy bits of guanciale. And Maw Maw’s Ravioli, topped with a lava flow of meat gravy. Ask Ticer and Hudman where they get inspiration for those signal Italian dishes and they will tell you—in a manner born-and-bred Southerners will recognize—that they owe it all to time spent in the Memphis kitchens of Catherine Chiozza and Mary Spinosa.

The boys miss a few notes. Some entrées, like the pheasant, don’t quite hit the intended balance of sweet and savory. And the stereo plays strident singer-songwriter coffeehouse drivel, when a mix of Italian pop and Memphis soul would be more fitting. But those are mere quibbles, forgotten when dessert—corn popped with lard, bound with marshmallows, and served with panna cotta—arrives, announcing that, while many still believe that good eats in this city begin and end with barbecue, an ascendant generation of chefs is kicking that notion to the curb.