For the man who puts the “Fra” in Frali Gourmet, authenticity is the star ingredient in every recipe. Hannah Hayes goes to market with the modern maestro. » Photography by Beau Kester
If Franco Marra’s mother had her way, her son would be an accountant. It’s an alternate reality Frali Gourmet followers, especially those who spread his zesty red pepper salsa on anything short of cardboard, would shudder to imagine.
“In Italy, what Mamma say go. You don’t go against Mamma,” he says in an Italian accent, thick as mozzarella. “She was an intellectual person with two university degrees. She did not believe in cooking, playing, singing (as a job). You have to become a lawyer or teacher.”
So Franco made a deal with Mamma: he would go to an accounting school near home, but only if he could go to culinary school, too. After graduation, his pasta prowess won out, and Franco found himself running a small hotel and restaurant on the coast of northwest Italy in his native region, Sanremo.
At the foothills of the Alps near the French border, Sanremo is the kind of seaside Mediterranean province straight out of a travel brochure: waves the color of beach glass and terra cotta tile-roofed houses precariously perched on cliff sides.
Franco’s people are reputedly resourceful, growing essential ingredients between the dichotomy of mountains and sea, turning hauls and harvests of Tallesca olives, sea-salted capers, plum tomatoes and fresh-caught fish into their signature light and fragrant cuisine. He wistfully recalls daily trips to an open-air market flush with vendors proffering barrels and crates full of local produce.
“I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for June because there was watermelon,” he reminisces. “And in May, strawberries. In April, the peaches. In fall, the grapes.”
Fourteen years into his marriage to Lisa, an American from Philadelphia, the pair moved stateside and settled in Savannah so they and their two sons could be closer to her family. After years of working in Hostess City kitchens, Franco’s natural resourcefulness (and those accounting skills) came in handy April 2010, when the Marras decided to make and sell their own gourmet Italian products—from earthy spinach fusilli to savory jarred giardiniera—under the hybrid name Frali (a combination of Franco and Lisa) Gourmet.
Food for Life
Just two years later, a diverse crowd of Frali fans gathers every Saturday in front of the couple’s tent at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market to sample their satiny marinated eggplant and tomato-pesto sauce and buy cellophane-wrapped packages of hand-rolled peach gnochetti and fluted roasted-pepper rigatoni. Lisa, a breast cancer survivor, is obsessed with healthy ingredients, while Franco is fixated on authentic ones. Just listen to his New York Times-style critique of Americanized pizza:
“(The people who make it), they should be arrested,” he says. “You don’t know if Ford (Motor Co.) makes it, the dough is so heavy, and the cheese? It’s soap. It’s plastic … Food is supposed to be alive. Not mummified.”
It’s a philosophy Franco and Lisa will put to work when they move their operation from a nondescript warehouse off President Street to a more fitting Historic District location in early fall. Their new home will be a full-scale restaurant and a production facility viewable through the dining room windows, where we’re sure to find Savannah’s pasta junkies drooling.
Until Frali sets up downtown, Franco is content to greet his loyal customers at a humble folding table on Saturday mornings at the market.
“Sometimes, it embarrasses me,” he says. “In Italy, nobody give you compliments. And if you’re younger, there’s no way you can know more than the older people. Here, they give you so many compliments, and it makes you feel good.”
Just like a great big steaming bowl of Frali’s chocolate conchiglie.
Franco Marra’s Saffron Sauce and Crimini Mushroom Garnish
2 cups of heavy cream
Pinch of pure saffron stems
Pinch of salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, simmer the cream and saffron stems until the cream turns yellow. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Crimini Mushroom Garnish
1 large carton of fresh crimini mushrooms (portabella or porcini are a good substitute)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 fresh garlic clove, diced
Chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
Slice the mushrooms and sauté them in olive oil with the garlic and parsley. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper, and sauté until the mushrooms reduce by two thirds. Serve over your favorite pasta, dressed with saffron sauce.