Acclaimed restaurateur Kevin Grangier has created an experiential eatery like no other
By Mandy Wolf Detwiler
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Few Louisvillians have actually strolled the streets of Italy, sipped a marocchino at an al fresco café or checked out the latest fashions at Borgo Stretto. But thanks to Kevin Grangier of Louisville-based Belle Noble Entertainment, Italy is coming to us. Grangier – who launched the highly successful Le Moo Steakhouse, Village Anchor, the Sea Hag and Kevin’s Picnic – set his sights on the Brownsboro Road area years ago and he finally found the right real estate with Grassa Gramma.
The 8,500-square-foot two-story Italian restaurant was modeled after a stone pavilion in Italy – often the hub of towns and neighborhoods. And, yes, it has the breathtaking outdoor view you may dream about when fantasizing about Italy. A former Chinese restaurant – and before that a movie theater – the large space lent itself well to Grangier’s vision.
“All my restaurants – let’s face it – are over the top,” says Grangier. “Italian is something most people can conceptualize – the flavor of the food and the flavor of the interior. I didn’t have in mind Northern or Southern (Italy) per se. I just had in mind the Italian experience.”
Taking center stage in the main dining room is a multi-level fountain with cherubs pouring water into the pool below. The fountain is surrounded by flowers all designed and hung by Grangier’s mother and tables built to resemble bicycles. The kitchen is also open with seating for guests to witness the goings on. The idea is two-fold: there’s extra seating, which is good for parties of one, and guests and cooks get a sense of accountability. Plus, everyone loves to watch food being prepared.
Grangier, a former marketing executive, admits he can’t cook and says, “They don’t want me in the kitchen. My talent is outside of the kitchen and creating the experience (for) the guest … It was just on my list of things I wanted to do. I’m a huge Italy fan. I’ve been there many, many times all over the place.”
This culmination of experiences and travels resulted in the piazza (open space) of the restaurant.
“When I think of Italy, I think of more Sicily and ‘The Godfather,’” he says. “I wasn’t going for your traditional red and green. I was going for the very severe and Catholic church and mafia, which is very dark with low lighting. That’s what I wanted to do except for the piazza, which I wanted to have a very different feel.
“What I tried to do was make every single seat experiential,” he continues, “and I think we did a great job doing that. I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the restaurant, and it’s filled with a significant amount of ‘eye candy’ if you will. I want that to be part of your experience.”
Most all of that eye candy comes from Grangier’s travels. He doesn’t purchase something with a specific usage in mind. Instead, he’ll work around it. And yes, all the artwork in the building is original.
“Every light fixture in the place is vintage or antique,” he says as he points to the heavy security bars, pulled from a bank in New York, leading to the dining room. The stunning – and heavy – front doors came from Egypt, and the lighted staircase from a house under renovation right here in Kentucky. The bicycle tables were crafted in Vietnam.
“I only have you for two hours,” Grangier says. “It’s very important that your head goes where I want it to be as quickly as possible so that you can (visually) move on from 12 acres of asphalt in the parking lot.”
We can talk about how stunning the restaurant for days, but if the menu wasn’t comparable, Grangier might as well shutter those Egyptian doors for good. Taking the reigns as Grassa Gramma’s executive chef is Robert Rice, who cut his teeth in the industry working for Wolfgang Puck. Grangier says he relied on Rice to create an authentic menu, which requires many items to be made in-house.
“I worked closely with Kevin to see what he wanted to do,” Rice says, adding that road trips together gave them one-on-one time to build a successful, classic Italian menu.
The second floor of the open kitchen is the domain of pastry and bread chef Shelby Notess, whose team starts hours before the restaurant opens to prepare that day’s offerings as well as the handmade focaccia that is passed around to guests before and during service.
“One of the unique things about our bread program is that we use a starter that I actually had imported from Italy,” Notess says. “We feed it every day and it will last forever until we stop feeding it.”
Even the cannoli shells – which most restaurants buy already prepared before making the filling – are made in-house with a touch of white wine.
On the menu, of course, there’s pasta. Grangier says the “must-have” is the Bolognese, featuring slow stewed veal, lamb, heritage pork, tomato, herbs and white wine served over ricotta salata and finished with Reggiano cheese ($22). You’ll also find breaded veal chops – a 14-ounce milk-fed, bone-in chop – and on the appetizer menu, wood baked oysters –Chesapeake oysters with salmoriglio sauce, pangrattato and Parmesan (4 for $12). Don’t worry if you don’t understand those heavy Italian words. Ask your server or just trust me. Everything is fabulous.
“If we could bring this early menu with traditional items like Bolognese and not try to reinvent them, without a description they should be able to picture it in their head,” said Rice.
For their small menu of pizzas, he says, “We have this local tree cutter who will hand pick cherry, walnut and oak for us,” Rice says. The oven burns anywhere from 650 to 850 degrees Fahrenheit. Aside from pizza, the oven is used to make bread and oysters for service.
So, what’s in the future for Grassa Gramma? Grangier said they hope to begin serving lunch in May. Sunday brunch, which started in April, includes traditional Italian brunch and breakfast dishes as well as pastries. And while Le Moo’s Sunday brunch featuring drag queens has become somewhat legendary in town, Grassa Gramma’s brunch features opera singers.
It’s all a part of the Grassa Gramma experience, one Grangier hopes to encourage repeat diners and not just visitors on special occasions.
“My first priority was to get you out of the parking lot and be overwhelmed once you get here,” Grangier says. “And I think we did that.” V
Grassa Gramma is located at 2210 Holiday Manor Center. For more information or reservations, visit grassagramma.com or opentable.com or call 502.333.9595.