The Triumph of Varanese

Crispy beef tenderloin meatballs.

Crispy beef tenderloin meatballs.

This August, it will be nine years since John Varanese opened his beloved eponymous eatery on Frankfort Avenue. Though the success of Varanese the restaurant is undeniable and certainly longstanding, the passion of Varanese the man, who just opened River House and The Levee, is just as palpable as ever.

Varanese grew up in Cleveland and got his training in Charleston before arriving in Louisville in 1998. He opened Varanese in August 2007 and has been working ceaselessly ever since to maintain his and his restaurant’s stellar reputation.

The menu at Varanese has long been celebrated due, at least partially, to its creativity. “It’s eclectic with some new-American influences, a little Mediterranean, a little Southern – it has plenty of room for some creativity,” Varanese describes.

DSC_0199The menu undergoes a few alterations every 12 to 18 months, but there are several items on the menu that guests have come to adore – such as the pecan-encrusted sea bass – that will never leave. “There are certain items you really don’t want to get away from if they’re real crowd-pleasers,” he reasons. “I’ll create dishes and be like, ‘Oh wow, this is awesome – I love it.’ But then as a chef, you get bored doing the same thing, and so you’re always looking for the new inspiration.”

A rotating specials list serves as a sort of outlet for that creativity and always keeps things fresh and seasonal – and it’s one of Varanese’s favorite aspects of his business. “We have an 1,100-square-foot garden out back, and we grow a bunch of edible flowers, some berries, the hottest peppers in the world, tomatoes, herbs – right now there’s radishes, greens and kale in the ground. We have a variety of things that we can pick and create for specials and different things … Those are the things I guess I look forward to – the seasons changing and getting new products to play with,” he explains.

But there’s far more to the restaurant than the menu. One of Varanese’s preeminent philosophies actually regards how all these elements come together. “It’s about doing a lot of little things right,” he affirms. “The four-seasons patio, the water wall, the jazz, all the way down to the white tablecloths and a great staff that really enjoys what they do.”

Assorted charcuterie plate.

Assorted charcuterie plate.

Indeed, Varanese openly credits his team, which has exhibited very little turnover, with much of his success. “I think that’s been really key in my success – being able to retain a great staff,” he asserts. “And that gives me the ability to go to work with a whole new staff and develop another concept while knowing this place is in good hands, and I don’t have to micromanage it. These guys are executing my vision, and they’re doing a really great job with it.”

Currently, a few new items have just hit the Varanese menu much to the delight of customers both new and old. Executive Chef Erik Abraham is particularly excited about the assorted charcuterie plate, which he says has been a remarkably lengthy process to bring to fruition as the meat is all aged in house. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean side of the menu comes out with the new crispy beef tenderloin meatballs, which are topped with diced tomatoes, red grapes, cucumbers, red onions and feta cheese in a curry-yogurt sauce.

The new barbeque duck confit eggrolls have already proved to be a hit, and the slow braised lamb shank with a creamy potato, Parmesan and caramelized leek hash; braised collard greens; and a natural pan sauce is also proving popular. For Varanese, he is certainly glad to have these items in place as it’s been a challenge to continuously split his time between Varanese, River House and The Levee.

Going forward, Varanese is looking forward to finally sitting back and taking a break from his ceaseless enterprise. “I’m getting to a point now where I’m happy with where things are, and I don’t need to keep extending myself and creating more and more challenges,” he says with a smile. The success is assuredly well earned at Varanese, and with monthly wine dinners and other events, there’s no end in sight. At last, Varanese can relax and oversee the eateries he has masterfully built, as he points out, “At some point, you have to enjoy the fruits that you’ve created.” VT

Varanese is located at 2106 Frankfort Avenue. For more information, call 502.899.9904 or visit