Every college town has a go-to pizza place. Some might have two or even three. But only one town has Ricatoni’s.
This Italian restaurant in historic downtown Florence has been around for decades serving tasty, homemade food, supporting its community and employing lots of local students, but the passion of owner Rick Elliott is what makes Ricatoni’s special. He’s as much of a draw as his dishes.
Families with students at the University of North Alabama swear by Ricatoni’s. They usually mention the cheese ravioli and Ricatoni’s commercials in the same sentence.
The restaurant, in a building that dates to the 1880s, opened in 1996. Elliott describes Ricatoni’s as “a fun place to go.” It’s a cool place to go, too. The patterns in the old tin ceiling and exposed brick walls tell a story of change and various businesses past. Lots of cozy booths offer diners a good look at the busy kitchen. Upstairs, a few tables have a larger view of the long, narrow dining room. There’s more private dining elsewhere in the restaurant, which seats more than 150. Rock hits from the ‘70s play in the background. The restaurant’s name in neon lights glows on a wall. Elliott frequently stops what he’s doing to greet customers: “You guys doing OK? You’re doing the right thing.”
By that he means eating at Ricatoni’s.
It’s a message he’s taken to YouTube with a series of comical commercials (with a cult-like following) starring his alter ego: Ricatoni Valentino.
By turns an author, boxer, inventor, psychic and “world’s greatest lip-syncer,” Valentino encourages viewers to eschew chain restaurants and eat instead at the family-owned Ricatoni’s.
Here they can dip freshly made bread into rich olive oil and selected herbs. They can enjoy homemade pastas and signature sauces, craft cocktails at the comfortable bar, pizza hot from the wood-fired oven.
“The most popular dish is actually the ravioli,” Elliott says. “It’s a tomato cream that we make in-house. We take the tomato sauce we make … and cut it with heavy cream. We use Stanislaus County (California) tomatoes.” His attention to detail and quality took Elliott out West to watch the picking and packing process of these pizza- and sauce-perfect tomatoes.
Chicken Alfredo and Lasagna Ricatoni, also made from scratch, are popular. There’s Smoked Duck and Sausage Pasta with goat cheese medallions. Elliott’s favorite dish is the Rotolo di Pollo. “It’s a chicken breast that’s rolled; it’s got prosciutto and fontina cheese. We cook it on the grill and put a little lemon butter and mushroom sauce on it. We serve it with our signature pasta, Tagliarini Piace Pellerossa (you can find copycat versions on Pinterest), and it comes with a house or Caesar salad.”
Pizzas are a big draw, and the menu features pies topped with shrimp, with Italian chicken and, of course, pepperoni. The simple Margherita is a great choice to showcase the smoky flavor from Elliott’s wood-fired oven. “At the time we did it, there were only four or five of them in the state. Frank (Stitt) down in Birmingham is really the culinary guru — not just for Alabama, but for the whole country. And he had one.
“We went out to California, to Woodside, and bought our oven and installed it here. We ate at Chez Panisse (Alice Waters’ acclaimed flagship restaurant). They had one of these same pizza ovens. It’s become a cornerstone of what we do here,” Elliott says. “You know, that type of cooking has really gotten popular. There are a lot of people now who install (these ovens) on their patios. They put them right next to their swimming pool.”
Elliott might well be a man ahead of his time. He is most certainly a Renaissance man with interests in and out of the kitchen. He gets up early to paddleboard on the Tennessee River. He swims in his “lap pond” on his property in Moulton. He takes Spanish language classes at UNA. He’s renovating two homes in Florence’s historic district, and he’s restoring a 1965, 21-window Volkswagen microbus. He served for years on the city’s airport board and absolutely loves flying planes. He has more than one, and he calls them “the kids.” He often flies the kids to various parts of the country taking rescued dogs to their new forever homes.
“Life,” he says, “is really pretty good. God has graced me with a fun and very cool life.”
Elliott opened a second restaurant next door in January 2012. “It was kind of an experiment, City Hardware,” he says. “I tell people that ‘it’s emerging American with a Southern accent that serves sushi.’ I don’t know how we got there, but once you’re in, you’re in. So we’re in.”
Elliott also is in when it comes to his community, and he’s getting ready to film some more commercials.
“I have a new ad campaign: Make Florence Great Again. I’m getting ready to put a billboard up. ‘Vote for Ricatoni Valentino: Leadership. Integrity. Focus. Compassion.’ That’s going to open up a lot of doors. I think I’ll do some editorials about some things.”
Although often expressed with humor, Elliott’s support for his city is serious. He says he’s most proud of “the number of people who have come through here and worked for me.” He’s helped support hundreds of students through college, and he wants to keep these ambitious young people in Florence.
“All those kids — smart kids, hardworking kids — they come here to get an education, and then there’s no work for them. … They go to Huntsville, Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta. I’d like to change that somehow, or help change it, and have a reverse migration so people would start moving here, not for tourism-type aspects or the cost of living, but because there’s some depth in the job market.”
Meanwhile, he relishes Ricatoni’s place in his community.
“A lot of people have been part of our family. It’s really interesting that now, especially, the people who come in with their kids are the people who came in as kids with their parents 20 years ago,” he says. “The tradition lives on. Even with search engines and all this stuff, Ricatoni’s still is. It’s exactly the way it was 20 years ago. People take comfort in the fact that … we are a stable element in their lives. That they can come here and go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember. This is the way it was 15 or 20 years ago when I used to come in with my parents.’
“This is part of a legacy,” Elliott says. “I’m 65, but 20 years from now, I’ve got my walker and I’m coming down the street and Ricatoni’s is still here. What a tribute that would be! I don’t know that it will happen. We’ll see.”
Ricatoni’s Italian Grill
107 N. Court St.
Florence, AL 35630
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.