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An Italian Restaurant on the Corner Turns 50

Mario Grisanti prepares three large pots of spaghetti sauce, or gravy, for the evening's dinner service at Dino's Grill, while Rudi Grisanti works on a meatloaf for lunch.
Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
Mario Grisanti prepares three large pots of spaghetti sauce, or gravy, for the evening's dinner service at Dino's Grill, while Rudi Grisanti works on a meatloaf for lunch.

It’s 9 a.m. and Rudi Grisanti has already been in the kitchen for an hour.

“Gettin’ things prepped,” he says, “seeing what we need. Mario just went and got groceries.”

Mario is his son and the most recent owner of Dino’s Grill, which has occupied this storefront on the corner of Tutwiler and McLean in Midtown Memphis since 1973. Little has changed in the past 50 years.

The first order of business every morning is making the spaghetti sauce, or gravy as it’s called. Three giant pots of it are cooked nearly every day. Rudi and Mario measure the ingredients by sight -- in handfuls and bunches. It’s tasty, but not fancy.

“A lot of people ask me, 'what cuisine do you make?'” Rudi says. “I said, I don’t make no cuisine! I My cooking is, what I call it, is immigrant food. This is the way that my grandparents, who were immigrants, that’s how they cooked. It’s comfort food. Makes people feel good.”

Yes, Rudi Grisanti shares his last name with the first family of Italian food in Memphis.

“We’re all cousins, basically,” Rudi says. “If there’s a Grisanti in this city, we’re a cousin some way or another.”

But he doesn’t share recipes. Mainly because Rudi doesn’t need to. Cooking is in his blood, like his Italian heritage. For many of the Memphis Grisantis, their story here starts in the early 1900s, with three brothers emigrating to the United States and landing in food-related occupations.

Ettore Grisanti started a wholesale fruit business, got married, and had a son named Dino. Then at age 27, in 1920, Ettore was stabbed to death in an alley Downtown.

Dino Grisanti grew up in care of his mother and stepfather, Frank Benedetti, another Italian immigrant who opened his own restaurant, the State Cafe, next door to the Orpheum theater just before World War II.

Dino fought in the U.S. Army, then came home and joined his stepfather serving plate lunches in the bustling city center. The State Cafe was in business for three decades, until Downtown Memphis fell on hard times. Urban renewal saw most of Beale Street razed in the early 1970s.

“They decided they wanted to tear that whole block down,” Rudi remembers.

And that’s when Dino found this spot in Midtown, formerly known as Southwestern Grill. It was owned by a couple of Greeks at the time. The name connected it to what was then Southwestern College (now Rhodes).

Rudi Grisanti never suspected this would become his life’s work.

“One day [Dino] said ‘here,’ and he handed me some papers, and it was all signed over to me,” Rudi says.

Dino kept working until he died in 1986.

Rudi is 72 now. He says he retired four years ago when he signed the business over to Mario, the son who wanted to take it over. But he still comes to work most days. Running a family restaurant, he says, can be hard on a family.

“There was a lot of things when him and his brothers were kids that I didn’t get to go to," Rudy says. "Well, I want him to be able to enjoy his own kids and his own family."

But family restaurants also, in their own way, create families.

Thursday nights are all-you-can-eat spaghetti night at Dino’s and a good time to meet the regulars.

Midtowners Gregg Coats and Mark Harris have been eating at the same table, once a week, for about 20 years. During the pandemic, they started ordering takeout to help keep the business going. Since things got picked up again, they often visit two nights a week -- adding Tuesdays for the pizza.

Gregg laughs: “Sometimes on the weekend, we’ll come for lunch.”

For them, Dino’s is like an extension of their own kitchen.

“The food is fabulous. It never changes. It’s always good,” Gregg says.

And in an industry known for short-lived ventures and changing fads, Dino’s Grill has managed 50 years by simply being timeless.

Dino's Grill

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.