Gianni Respinto makes magic at his Homewood restaurants.
by Barry Wise Smith Photos by Brit Huckabay
If you’ve ever driven down Broadway Street in Edgewood on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ve probably seen cars parked along both sides of the road for blocks and people packed inside a small, unassuming brick building that is home to Gianni Respinto’s upscale Italian restaurant, GianMarco’s.
According to Gianni, every chef has an interesting journey, and he is no exception. He didn’t plan to own restaurants in Homewood, Alabama. Growing up in the Bronx, Gianni and his brother Marco (yes, GianMarco’s is a combination of their names) grew up in their family’s Greenwich Village Italian restaurant, Rocco’s. When it was time for Gianni to go to college, he picked a school as far from home as he could get—heading to the University of Denver. But with family history being what it was, Gianni “always gravitated back to restaurants.” In college, “I always worked at restaurants because I knew it, and it was an easy way to make a little money.”
After graduation, Gianni returned to New York and went to work at Restaurant Mamo in the SoHo neighborhood. “I learned a lot,” he recalls. But soon Gianni was ready for a change of latitude and warmer weather, so he headed to South Florida, where he landed a job with the group who ran Café Maxx, a landmark restaurant in Pompano Beach. “There was a crazy fusion scene happening in the 80s,” Gianni says. “I really started to flourish. I had great respect for ingredients but not much respect for tradition.” In 2001, the higherups tapped their young chef to open a new restaurant for them in Birmingham—the East City Grill at Brookwood Mall. “We attempted to do Florida food in Birmingham,” Gianni says. But after almost two years, “I saw that the restaurant wasn’t going to make it, and my dilemma was ‘what do I do now?’”
Having moved his family to Birmingham, Gianni started making a plan to stay. “Honestly, I fell in love with Birmingham,” he says. “I realized I could earn a great living, and the people were so pleasant. And there were seasons. It was a much better place for my family to be.” Then a conversation with the owner of Stignani’s Market in Edgewood led Gianni to his answer. “I met Mr. Stignani, and the Publix was under construction, and he was ready to retire,” Gianni says. So Gianni took over and renovated the Stignani’s space and in 2003 opened GianMarco’s. The rest, they say, is history. “We’ve been busy since the day we opened the doors.”
Since those doors opened, GianMarco’s has become a must-dine destination for Homewood neighbors and people from around the city and country alike. Tucked on its quiet suburban street, GianMarco’s is surrounded by residential homes (including Gianni’s, which is right next door). “Where I’m from, you open restaurants in neighborhoods,” Gianni says. Marco has been with his brother from the start, and after their dad Giovanni sold his restaurant and retired to South Florida, “he was bored out of his mind” and joined his sons in Homewood. “He is a fixture at the front of the restaurant,” Gianni says.
For all his desire to do something different, Gianni has established a reputation based on the food of his childhood. “As an Italian kid from the Bronx, the last thing you want is to do Italian food,” he says. But you dance with the one who brung you, so the GianMarco’s menu features classic dishes like Linguine with Clams, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Eggplant Parmigiana. But not one to be pigeon holed, Gianni also creates dishes with a hefty dose of Cajun and Creole influence and creative spins on Southern classics, like shrimp and grits. “You start traditional, and once people trust you, you can turn them on to new things,” he says.
In 2010, Gianni converted a storage building behind the restaurant into a wine bar called GianMarco Wine. “That came from me being a wine guy,” he says. “Why would you not want to give people the opportunity to buy every bottle of wine on the wine list. It was a no brainer for me.” Since opening, the wine bar has developed a following of its own. Not only can you buy wine from the impressive wine list, but you can also order off the regular menu in a less formal setting. “It’s really turned into its own entity,” Gianni says. In 2015, the property owner closed her antique shop, and Gianni took over the whole building adding a private event room for parties. “We just keep growing.”
With a desire to do something more casual and with a location he couldn’t pass up, Gianni opened Pizzeria GM in the growing West Homewood neighborhood in early 2018. “I always wanted something more casual,” Gianni says. “I’ve seen the shift to fast casual restaurants, but I felt like there was a need for a casual, less expensive place but still with great service and fantastic food.” Adjacent to Patriot Park, Pizzeria GM is just that—casual, less expensive, and family friendly. “I never thought I’d own a place with high chairs,” he says. He spent over a year and a little over a million dollars building the restaurant from the ground up, participating in every step of the design. “My dad always talked about owning your own bricks,” Gianni says. “So a lot of it was for my dad.” The restaurant is open and airy with a long bar, dining room views of the kitchen, a screened dining porch, a cozy outdoor eating area along Oxmoor Road, and an outdoor game area popular with families.
Gianni has literally poured himself into the project spending almost 24/7 at the new restaurant to get it up and running, with Marco helming GianMarco’s. “It’s like having a new baby,” he says. And as success settles in, Pizzeria GM is becoming as much a hub for its neighborhood as GianMarco’s is for Edgewood. “A real restaurant should be part of the fabric of its neighborhood and become part of its customer’s lives,” Gianni says. “I think we have definitely done that; we’ve been really lucky. We’ve seen couples come on their first dates, return and get engaged at the restaurant, get married, have kids, and bring their families to eat with us.”
As mentioned, Gianni lives next door to his restaurant, which means, “I’m always working.” He rarely takes a day off, and you can almost always find him in one of the restaurants on Sunday afternoons working on menus and prepping for the next week. “I think one of the biggest keys to our success is people know we are here,” Gianni says. “There’s never been a day in 15 years when one of us hasn’t been in the building.”
And what does the future hold? “I’m very pragmatic,” Gianni says. “I always plan for the worst case scenario. I constantly ask myself ‘can I survive on my worst day?’ I try to get better and not get bored. I’m not going anywhere. I want to keep growing both restaurants. I want to get up every day and do the best I can. Oh yeah, and (being the New York boy he is) Go Yanks!”