Italian Renaissance

Alex Grisanti’s restaurant Elfo’s rises to the challenge of creating Old-World classics with a modern twist.

The Grisanti family has brought its signature Italian cuisine to downtown Germantown with Elfo’s. The restaurant, which actually represents the relocation of the eatery from Chickasaw Oaks shopping center near Midtown (now home to Just for Lunch), makes its home in the former Three Oaks Grill. Alex Grisanti, who’s also in charge at Ronnie Grisanti & Sons, and his wife Kim are the owners of this new venture. They renovated the space, and reopened as a stylish eatery with a traditional Italian menu.

Unlike the former Elfo’s, which served lunch only with a Continental-style menu so it would not compete with nearby Ronnie’s, the Germantown restaurant serves lunch and dinner. The new restaurant looks great. The spacious lounge, which as Three Oaks Grill was dark and equestrian in décor, is dominated by a long bar of Italian Galaxy marble, high-back upholstered booths with brown leather seats, cherry-red velvet couches with low tables, and chocolate- brown draperies. The main dining room features the same style booths, draperies in red velvet, and red light fixtures that look like gigantic traditional lampshades. There’s a subtly patterned cocoa carpet throughout. With white-washed walls, large black-and-white family photographs, well-chosen chairs, and other furnishings, the interior manages to be tasteful, warm, and modern at the same time. There’s a definite buzz, and a well-dressed clientele. The décor might suggest a splashy menu, but the fare is mostly of the familiar Italian variety: Homemade tortellini and ravioli, veal or chicken Parmigiana, manicotti, and iceberg salads with garlicky oil and vinegar dressing, plus Grisanti’s signature classics such as Elfo’s special pasta.

We found a few more modern items, though, when we started our dinner with the excellent shrimp and artichoke pizza. It had an al dente thin homemade crust, with bits of shrimp, sundried tomato, portobello mushroom, and artichoke heart scattered over white mascarpone sauce and grated fresh mozzarella. We also tried two appetizers, of which the shrimp scampi was tops. It consisted of modest-sized shrimp in a refreshing lemony sauce, with diced tomato and fresh basil adding an extra twist. The fried calamari was so-so, not the best or the worst. The accompanying sauces, a spicy tomato and a subdued mustard aioli, were fresh-tasting and better than most.

As for entrees, manicotti was a well-wrought representative of this Italian classic, stuffed with a meat-and-spinach filling and served with a rich, hearty, meaty tomato sauce, yet lighter than many versions of this dish. The veal Parmigiana was Italian comfort food: crumb-coated and fried, with mozzarella and chunky fresh pomodoro over angel hair pasta. A favorite at the original Elfo’s, eggplant napoleon was up to par, with greaseless, crumb-coated thin slices of eggplant layered with vegetable slices and mozzarella over angel hair pasta and sweet fresh-tomato sauce.

One of the few departures from this type of fare was the special sea bass. Cooked just right to buttery tenderness, the fish was luscious in its pool of white wine sauce green with basil and parsley. When we returned for lunch (same menu), we focused on lighter fare. The D&G was a lively chopped salad of iceberg tossed with bits of olives, Italian cold cuts, bacon, tomato and blue cheese. These intense flavors worked well with the strong “Miss Mary’s” house dressing. The Rinaldo was more straightforward: Iceberg lettuce with black olives, anchovies, and Gorgonzola. Both were fresh and crisp, not a bit soggy despite the generous dousing of dressing.

We also tried the portobello panini, which was not a panini at all, in the sense of being a pressed grilled sandwich on sliced bread. The marinated mushroom, red bell pepper, and fontina cheese came in a finely textured house-made rosemary focaccia roll. Somehow, in contrast to the chopped salad, the flavors of this sandwich did not come together very well. The sandwich was served with excellent homemade potato chips - crunchy, light, and not overly salted. Other sandwiches include a muffaletta and a burger with fontina cheese and bourbon mayonnaise.

The soup of the day was a delicious crawfish bisque, spicy with cayenne, thick with crawfish, and creamy without being uncomfortably rich and heavy. It could have used a bit more salt, though. For dessert we tried the well-made tiramisu, and enjoyed the crushed coffee beans in the sauce, as well as the restaurant’s sweet version of sugar-crusted classic vanilla crème brûlée. The gooey “Tuscan” chocolate cake that came with ice cream was more all-American crowd-pleaser than anything you would actually find in Tuscany.

In contrast to the lengthy list of Italian wines at Ronnie’s, the list here is short, with a combination of familiar names, a few Italian wines popular at Ronnie’s, and some other choices.

Elfo’s service was attentive and punctual on both visits, the servers timely with refills, courses, clearing, and the check. They were friendly, patient, and knowledgeable about the food. The one sticky spot was that a wine being recommended as a substitute for our out-of-stock first choice wasn’t even close, although in fairness the server let us try some before we were stuck with a bottle of something we didn’t like. The staff knows how to take care of customers and stay on top of the details.

We found the new Elfo’s to be a stylish, gorgeous restaurant with plenty of atmosphere. It’s an exciting addition to downtown Germantown, in contrast to the rather tired feeling Three Oaks Grill had acquired. To my mind, however, the cuisine fairly begs for more pizzazz, more dishes like the sea bass, the scampi, and some of the more adventurous items on Ronnie’s special menu. That’s a minor point, though, given that we found plenty of good things to eat, including the shrimp-and-artichoke pizza, Elfo’s lightened-up version of manicotti, and the D&G salad.

Otherwise, the restaurant seems to be playing it safe for the suburban crowd. While the dishes we tried were all fresh and well-made, a number of them, like the calamari, desserts and veal parmigiana, were predictable and not very interesting.


2285 S. Germantown Rd. 753-4017

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