The Little Linguine that Could

September 11, 2012

By Andrea Goto  ·  Photography by Chia Chong

“It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine. It’s fine, bitch.” Franco says in a thick Italian accent to his wife Lisa as they discuss a pasta delivery that needs to get out before the close of business. Both wear hairnets that remind me of my grandma who feared that exposure to running water would cause her to prematurely lose her $30 perm.

“He has Tourette’s,” Lisa deadpans—a little Jersey, a little Philly, and a lot like a woman who’s been married for over two decades. She met Franco at 24 while on a solo trip to Italy and didn’t return for 14 years.

The two volley zingers back and forth, unconcerned by my presence. I am in their world now—a relatively small warehouse tucked into a residential pocket in Savannah’s eastside. Franco flirts with me as he instinctively feeds dough into a pasta-cutting machine while Lisa fills large, ready-to-ship cardboard boxes with fresh pasta and shakes her head knowingly. Franco’s father, who’s visiting from Italy, sits at a table with an open bottle of red wine and an empty glass. He speaks little-to-no English, but somehow manages to serenade me with Sinatra.

Unlike his father, Franco is a big man—or maybe he just seems that way because of his personality. I understand about every other word and puzzle together the rest. Mid sentence, he hands me a hairnet. I try to make it look trendy, like those baggy knit hats Ashton Kutcher favors.

“You look funny,” says Franco.

Maybe he does have Tourette’s.

Franco and Lisa came to Savannah 11 years ago when he was hired as the execute chef at a local Italian restaurant. In just a few short years he was raking in a 6-figure income and his kitchen was rated by USA Today as one of the top ten Italian restaurants in the country. Then things started to go down the toilet, or rather, into the steel teeth of the 1954 vintage pasta machine Franco brought from Europe.

I think he’s joking until I glance at his right hand. It looks as if it was sewn back together without a pattern—the fingers are unnatural lengths and jut out at odd angles.

Without a safety, the pasta cutter mercilessly rolled Franco’s hand into its blades. Luckily he had the sense to shut the machine off with his foot otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. It took the EMTs 47 minutes to free Franco and over a dozen surgeries to Frankenstein his hand back together again. Through it all, Franco worked—up until the market crashed and “we all went to hell.”

Hell, for Franco, was unemployment, especially after having grown accustomed to having so much. But he and Lisa saw this as an opportunity and scraped together every penny they had to start Frali Gourmet, a little pasta business creating a fresh product that’s garnering a lot of attention. Besides wholesaling to most of Savannah’s top-rated restaurants, Frali products also appear in TV dinners produced for Whole Foods and Costco. They’ve only been in business two years, but Franco is already impatient to expand—to get into what he calls a “Champion’s league.”

“He was even born premature,” Lisa explains.

While we talk, Franco delights us by nimbly folding tortellini. The performance is so grand, I halfway expect the tortellini to transform into a dove and fly away.

“Why you laughing?” Franco asks as he creates a “family” of tortellini stuffed to various sizes. “Are you not taking seriously my stuffing? Are you abusing my stuffing?”

I would never mock Franco’s “stuffing”—in fact, I have a feeling it’s made of iron. Here’s a couple who opened a local business in a failing economy and produces healthy, fresh, all-natural products against a backdrop of prepackaged food fit for a landfill. And through the long hours and hard labor, they manage to keep perspective and remain playful. If they could package and sell that “stuffing,” they’d make millions.


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