On Friday night, Franco Marra had an audience of nine captivated locals at FraLi Gourmet, in Savannah. We were there to watch him do his magic: bringing Italian food to life with just a few simple, fresh ingredients.
We gathered around a beautifully set wooden table in the middle of the retail space. The haphazard group consisted of: Yuki Nakamura, a young Japanese man working in logistics at the Port of Savannah, who often comes into the store to buy fresh panini or pasta; Steve and Pat Cook, a couple from Tybee – he owns and operates Coastal Wood Design and she has several vacation rentals in Savannah; Trina Fountain, a local wine expert who works at Habersham Beverage on Abercorn Street; Francisco Valdez, manager of XYZ Liquors on Tybee; Mara Drew, self-proclaimed FraLi- and panini-addicted massage therapist at Relax Therapeutic Massage , and her colleague, Jen Marks, an acupuncturist. Gerd and I completed the 7:30 seating.
As Franco set up in the front of the room, the rest of us mingled and got to know one another over the wine we had brought with us.
Gerd and Francisco
Steve and Pat
Lisa (the ‘Li’ part of ‘FraLi’) came around with small plates of deliciousness: gluten-free crackers topped with imported Pecorino Toscano cheese and a dollop of her famous roasted pepper sauce, slices of house-made baguettes with creamy imported Tomini cheese drizzled with blackberry-habañero jam, and savory Castelvetrano olives wrapped in delicate coppa (slivers of pork shoulder cured with aromatic herbs and spices).
The cooking demonstration began with the filling for the first course: crèpes with sautéed mushrooms and Béchamel sauce. Franco explained how to infuse olive oil with garlic and herbs as he drizzled some FraLi garlic oil into the pan, and the room quickly filled with the pleasant aroma of sizzling mushrooms. When they were done, he began the Béchamel sauce, getting everyone laughing as he said in his heavy Italian accent, “You have to have the right dosage of butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg and flour for the roux.” He went on to describe the quantities needed, in ounces and grams and even cc’s. I looked at Pat, who used to be a nurse, and we burst out laughing. “Now, if you feel more comfortable to turn the pot instead of turn the whisk, it’s up to you.” He stirred the flour into the melted butter.” The end result looked like a thick, heavy cream. “Paste,” Pat said.
As we all watched the chef intently, he looked at Jen and said, “You with the bi-focal eyes! Don’t stare at me!” She covered her face in mock embarrassment and laughter filled the room. “I’m married, okay?” Franco continued, with his deadpan serious face. “Don’t get any ideas, no projects.” Lisa brought us the finished crèpes to taste, winking as she placed them on the table.
Jen avoiding Franco’s gaze
Next, Franco started on the vodka sauce for the main course. He instructed us to always use whole, peeled tomatoes and not crushed or diced tomatoes for authentic sauce. “And not flavored tomatoes!” He warned. “You have to use fresh herbs – rosemary or basil. And not oregano! Never use oregano. Oregano is only for Pizzaiola sauce. Blend the tomatoes with an immersion blender. And no, you don’t need a mask.” The sound of rolling thunder from a late-night storm (or maybe it was the drums from the John Cougar Mellencamp concert across the street at the Civic Center) mixed with the laughter around the table. He looked over at Jen again and asked, “Are you bi-polar? When I say something funny, you don’t laugh. When I say something not funny, you laugh. Even he got it.” He glanced at Yuki, who was smiling broadly.
Franco, as serious as a heart attack, dropped some butter in a large pot, then added garlic and red pepper flakes. He stirred intently for a few minutes, then added tomatoes, vodka, and salt. After the alcohol had cooked off, he stirred in heavy cream, followed a few minutes later by parmesan and a drizzle of basil oil.
“In my classes, I always see who is the slowest one,” he said as he walked around with the pot of sauce, letting everyone take a whiff. “Don’t fall in!” he joked, yanking it back from under Yuki’s nose. “Now taste it.” He placed the pot back in front of Yuki. Yuki hesitated, and Franco demonstrated. “Don’t use your middle finger!” he said, dipping his own stubby index finger into the rich sauce and bringing it to his lips. “You on a diet?” he asked Pat when she used her pinkie to try it. “Want to try again?” He looked around the table.
“It’s not double dipping if you use a different finger!” Francisco tasted the sauce again. “Very perceptive,” he said to Franco. “Perspicaccio!” Franco boomed. “Now, peep, peep, peep! Talk amongst yourselves!” He set the pot on the burner in the front of the room and disappeared into the back.
We were served heaping plates of FraLi’s gemelli pasta and sauce, dusted with freshly grated Parmigiano. As we finished up, Franco came out with a gorgeous dessert: Crostata di Frutta. He set it on the table and began to explain how to make it. “Listen, this is im-po-tent!” he shushed us as we oohed and aahed over the beautiful tart. “This is not for vegans or problematic people!” He produced a handful of dough and pinched off little balls. “Open your mouth,” he commanded. He threw dough balls into the men’s mouths, but handed them to the ladies to try. He described how to make the shortbread base. He passed around a vanilla bean, “from Madagascar.”
“I love that movie!” Gerd exclaimed. A small group of people came to the door and tried to open it. We all looked at them. “Awww, they want to come in and get some food,” I said. Pat smelled the long, dark pod in her hand. “It doesn’t suck to be us,” she said.
As Franco finished up his explanation of the crostata and custard, Jen laughed, “Thank God we didn’t make it ourselves. We’d be drunk and hungry.”
“This place is like baseball,” Francisco added. The former baseball player went on, “There’s A, AA, AAA, and major league. This is major league!”
We ate our dessert in silence. Steve asked Pat if she’d like a little more wine. She looked around the table before sharing a story about her mom. The older woman was out on the town having a good time and when a server asked her if she wanted another drink, she retorted,
“You can’t fly on just one wing!”
FraLi Gourmet is located at 217 West Liberty Street, across from the Civic Center. If you’d like to attend one of Franco’s cooking demonstrations, check out the FraLi Facebook page for upcoming events. You won’t be sorry!
Watch Franco in action: