Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
Located in what was once a Masonic Temple, one can find Ecco at 1585 Overton Park. The building was erected in the early ’20s and certainly stands out among the residential houses surrounding it. The Mediterranean-inspired eatery is owned by Sabine Bachmann and administered by her and her two sons Armando and John-Paul Gagliano, who respectively helm the back and front of the house.
The name comes from an Italian phrase that loosely translates to “the place to be,” a suitable name for a neighborhood spot where you almost always run into someone you know. Since opening in 2014. the restaurant has become a staple in and outside of the historic Evergreen District in which it is nestled. It has become hub for the area, entertaining a wealth of regulars and neighbors. The kind of community dining hall you see in old movies.
Often the family itself inspires the food. The menu is filled with recipes that have been handed down through generations, assimilating with their new caretakers. From Germany to Italy to the American South, these influences and stories make ECCO what it is. They have traveled farther than many of us ever will.
At the time of this article I’m with Sabine Bachmann and her son Armando, the Chef of Ecco. We’re meeting for a late dinner after Friday service.
Part 1: Starters
I’m originally from Nordhorn, Germany, which is a small town next to a Dutch border. The phrase for my hometown is “Where the cows are prettier than the girls.” The cows are actually really beautiful though, and they get brushed every day. It was a dairy town. In town there were always farmers markets and people foraging for mushrooms.
Eventually Sabine moved to Muenster, where she attended college and studied German literature and the Russian language. She decided to pursue a career in the veterinary medicine; however, her grades were not high enough to attend a German university. The standards for admittance at an Italian school were much lower, she says. The main requirement was passing an Italian language test, so she studied with a friend for six months. She was accepted and headed south to veterinary school.
That’s where I met my boys’ father, who was playing baseball there. I fell in love with their culture, their food and their wine. I dropped out of school and started importing wines from Italy to the United States with their father. We got married, and I went with him back to his home, Memphis.
For many years I sold wine to liquor stores. I would go by there and let them taste the wines and talk to them about it, which was very unusual at the time. In fact I would insist that the people stocking the wines and working the cash registers should taste them as well. You never know who they will be one day. I’d also set up dinners with the owners at the their houses. I would cook them dinner and then pair wines I was selling with the food. It makes such a huge difference to taste the right food with the right wine. I’ve always thought that was important.”
Wine and food became a big part of Sabine’s life and she wanted to instill her passion in her sons at a young age much like her mother did to her.
When I was eight she would blindfold me and give me different wines or different fruits, and she’d always ask me what I tasted or smelled or felt. She’d ask me to pinpoint the nuances and differences between them. I was the only one of my siblings that really enjoyed it.
That’s not true! They enjoyed it too!
Part 2: Salads
Sabine and the boy’s father divorced when Armando was eight. Sabine stayed in Memphis. Selling wine in a male dominated industry and raising three young sons as a single mother had its complications though. Sabine: When you’re thrown into a situation you do what you have to. I thought about going back to Germany, but it hadn’t been my home in 20 years. What was I going to do there? Fly back with my three children. Where was I going to move, with my mom who was still living in a very small village? Am I going to work as a waitress? Go back to school? I had connections here. We had a great house that I still live in today that my ex-husband’s family helped me get. They were and still are really great people. Why would I walk away from that? Uproot my kids. They didn’t even speak any German. But it was a difficult time here, too.
Because of the laws back then you could not taste wines in liquor stores. I always had this little idea to start a restaurant next to a liquor store, so customers could sample the wines before buying them. One day when I was driving downtown, I saw a spot for rent right next this little liquor store called the Corkscrew. So I got the money together and opened a deli to cater to the Corkscrew’s customers. We never ended up selling wine though. We sold sandwiches and it had a little grocery section where we sold imported canned tomatoes, pastas, and anchovies. Things you would get at Whole Foods now.
However, things were still not great. I remember pumping the last $5 I had into my car. I guess I had a bad look on my face or something. Life just felt so hard then, but homeless person called out to me and said ‘It can’t be all that bad.’ I thought, ‘He’s so right. I have opportunities. I have a business, even though it’s not going too good. I have to raise these three kids.’ I had this opportunity to work my ass off at this Deli. I did whatever I could to take care of my kids.
She pretty much put us through CBHS by buying imported cheeses and selling them through the farmers market. She would buy these big cheese wheels and portion them out. Vacuum seal them, and then sell them to cover our tuition. I even started working at our deli when I was 13 because my brothers were too young.
Sabine: You were way too young! But you always insisted on helping. He always wanted to help his mom. He was just that kind of kid.
Armando: I wanted to do whatever I could to help my mom and brothers. We never really had a stable man in our lives. My dad’s a good guy or whatever but was never really around. My mom remarried at a point and we had a step dad who I’m sure was a good guy at heart, but was never really around either. I felt like I needed to do something to help my mom and my brothers.
Sabine: But at the same time he discovered how much he loved food.
Part 3: Pasta
Armando: My first memory of really creating something was at our deli. We had a little case with random things in there. One day I wrapped some prosciutto around some cantaloupe and added balsamic on it. A woman working there at the time said, ‘He’s going to be a chef someday.’ That really stuck with me. I was 13-years-old, and I would fax my mom a shopping list of what I needed to cook what I wanted to when I got home. I would be working in the kitchen there, and when I got home, all I wanted to do was cook more. I always wanted to cook more.
Even when I moved out of my mom’s house and I lived with friends, I was always the one that cooked. I would cook puttanesca for my roommates. They never understood this infatuation with olives, capers and peppers. It was and is still one of my favorite things to cook.
That was one of the things I cooked when you were growing up.
I was always cooking things she used to make us. It was always things that were cheap but tasted delicious. There was this one pasta we called “spicy pasta” we ate all the time. She would render down some bacon, hit it with some tomato puree and add some hot sauce. Then throw it all on some spaghetti. I still make that dish like three times a week.
Sabine: We’ve had a few specials here at Ecco that were things my mom would make me as a child that her mom would make her, like beef roulade. You take sirloin and beat it down really thin. Add mustard, onions, bacon, roll it up and you braise it. Then you let it sit with this sauce. It becomes this super tender beef dish.
Armando: We didn’t have any money growing up. So for our birthday present we would get to pick what dinner we wanted to have. Every year it would be roulade. Every year. I still love it. When you eat something and it takes you home. It’s like in Ratatouille and the asshole critic eats the ratatouille and it takes him back to childhood. When I eat roulade it’s like a time warp.
That’s what food does though. It brings you back. It brings up memories. It brings people together. It’s not about sitting there by yourself and eating something. It’s about sharing with family and friends and sitting together. That’s where I depart from the people who only analyze food. Food is so much more than critique. It’s about moments and experiences.
Part 4: Entrees
After high school Armando wanted to pursue a career in nursing. He attended the University of Memphis for several semesters and had moved back in with his mom while he was in school.
I had always worked for my mom helping her with her catering company and at the deli. At the time I had moved back in with my mom while I was in college, and a buddy of mine who lived in the neighborhood was really into cooking. So we started barbequing and cooking together a lot, but he never wanted to do it professionally. Anyway it was the last day to register for classes at school for the upcoming semester. I went up to my mom and told her that I wanted to work with food. It was what I really wanted to do. She told me to just do it. She said “I don’t care what you do, just make sure it makes you happy and you put your all into.” So I didn’t register for classes and instead I went out looking for a job in the kitchen. The deli wasn’t really a “real deal” kitchen. So I didn’t really have any experience.
I went and applied for a job at Sweet Grass. The guy interviewing me asked what kind of experience I had. I told him I had worked for my mom’s deli, making sandwiches and salads. He asked me what I wanted out of this job. I told him I wanted my own restaurant one day. He gave me the job as a prep cook and I started the next day. I got there 30 minutes early and worked my ass off. I tried to do anything I could to let the people there see how much I cared and how much effort I put in. Every carrot I chopped and every onion I diced. I cared about everything as if it was my own; even though I knew it wasn’t and would never be. My idea was if I work my ass off, and maybe I could be a chef under the owner. I wasn’t even there a year before Diane contacted my mom.
A restaurant was never really my dream when I came to America. It just so happened. It started with a simple deli. Eventually the owner of this building asked me if I wanted to open up a lunch spot here. I loved the idea and knew we could do it if we tried.
Armando: My mom asked me if I was ready to run a kitchen. I told her I thought so. I obviously wasn’t, but what do you say to that? The first few months I was just losing my mind. I would just check the numbers every night, making sure we had enough to pay the bills. We were still trying to feel our way out, and it took a lot out of us. It hurt when dishes were sent back. All I wanted was people to enjoy my food. I looked at Yelp every day and night, and it would just break me down. Eventually I got to the point where I said I’m just going to try harder, and hopefully these people will come back and see the improvement. Time just moves so fast. I still can remember looking out of the kitchen and seeing the lines of people outside the door when we first opened. I would have just finished five ravioli orders and five more would come up, and I’m back there just freaking out.
Part 5: Dessert
In 2017, Armando went to the Culinary Italian Institute for three months where he learned more about Italian cuisine and his own heritage. Upon returning, the family opened their second restaurant, Libro. The family plans to continue growing their business but notes that the most important part about Ecco is the community that the restaurant creates.
Armando: We went to Germany when I was 13, around the same time I started working at the deli, and we stayed at this farm village for about two weeks. We went to a party in the woods while we were there, and they had this whole hog rotating over an open fire. Everyone was singing and playing accordions. It was like a German barbeque. Those two weeks really stuck with me. When I went back to Italy we did the same thing. Went to a farm, slaughtered a pig, roasted it and ate it all together. To me that’s what food is. Food is community; just being together and eating together. We’re a little family restaurant in this little neighborhood. When people come here we’re inviting them to be a part of our family.
I’m trying to emulate the food my mom served to us. Take that mindset and quality but elevate it. Even if it isn’t exactly the same dish we ate growing up, it’s still derived from the same principles my mom taught us about life and food.
I really want people to know when they eat here; they are a part of this. One of my favorite feelings is when someone recognizes a familiar face in the restaurant. Its not just food, it’s family. Home to me is my little house on Dickinson where my kids grew up. Home is Ecco.