Sadly, it appears that the Americanization of Italian cuisine has found its way from Olive Garden to the corner bistro. You know, the popular idea that oversized plates and huge portions are enough to satisfy, even when the quality is lacking.
Growing up in an Italian family doesn’t help matters. Sunday dinners at our house revolved around an all-day-simmering pot of “gravy,” the meatballs, sausage and braciole slowly adding depth and flavor. But you don’t have to have the breeding to know that delicious Italian food isn’t hard to execute—as long as it’s made with good ingredients and care.
That said, Grappa Café is enjoying some serious popularity with local diners. And while my visits to the Paoli BYO had their uplifting moments, Grappa, for the most part, left me craving some of Mom’s Sunday gravy.
Anthony Mastrogianni is co-owner of Grappa, arriving recently from Baltimore, where he opened several restaurants. He’s partnered with the ownership of Newtown Square’s Fellini Café on this venture, which opened last September.
The restaurant sits on a corner in the former site of Fellini’s Café, just a few steps away from the Paoli train station. It looks tiny from the outside, and you immediately feel the smallness when you step inside—especially during weekend dinner service. There’s no waiting area, so pushing your way through the crowd and up to the host/hostess stand can prove difficult. The place is divided into four separate eating areas, the tables fairly close together and the rooms just a bit too cramped for comfort. Still, the interior is inviting, with its copper walls, dark wood chairs and marble tabletops.
On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was packed. Several large tables of parents with kids and excessively chatty women took up most of the space in one of the dining rooms, and I could barely hear my companion over all the noise. The fairly open kitchen didn’t help matters.
Our server was nice enough but seemed more interested in taking our order and getting us out the door than making our experience enjoyable. In truth, the whole vibe at Grappa was rushed and anxious. Glasses were broken on several occasions as the staff hurriedly cleared tables for the next guests and asked quickly in passing if everything was OK.
Positive website reviews promised authentic Italian cuisine, with homemade pastas, seafood and meat dishes. The menu is exceptionally long, broken into seven sections: first course, salad, pasta, panini, meat, seafood and steak. Each item is numbered from one to 70. For any restaurant, 70 dishes coming out of one kitchen can be a problem. Often, proper execution is sacrificed, and ingredients aren’t given the attention they require.
Still, Grappa’s prices are reasonable—especially for large groups, since at least two could easily share an entrée. Appetizers are in the $6-$13 range; an entrée will run you anywhere from $12 (for the spaghetti pomodoro) to $27 (for the grilled filet and crab cake, or the crab cake platter).
Our meal began on a tasty note, the waitress serving us a few pieces of complimentary bruschetta as we decided how best to make a dent in the 70-item menu.
The grilled calamari appetizer was light and flavorful, the squid evenly charred from the grill, with a bite from the olive oil and garlic marinade. The fried crab balls, though, were too bready, fairly mushy, undercooked on the inside, and lacked enough of the meaty Maryland crab to be worthy of the $13 price.
The arugula, balsamic vinaigrette and Parmesan salad was a winner—fresh and unfussy. As the meal went on, we realized that the kitchen was best at executing the simplest dishes.
A large menu has its benefits, as was evident by the ever-revolving door and tables of seemingly happy customers. Depending on what kind of mood you’re in, there are enough seafood, meat and pasta choices to leave you going back and forth among four or five dishes.
We’d heard the restaurant has homemade pasta, but there was none to be had in the dishes we ordered. Several have light sauces, like a simple pomodoro or the puttanesca (with fresh, chopped tomatoes, garlic, capers, olives, anchovies and hot peppers), but much of the pasta was smothered in heavy cream sauces.
The tortellini pasticciati—loaded with prosciutto, peas and mozzarella—was supposed to have been baked, but we were served a large bowl of pasta that clearly hadn’t seen an oven. The linguini with crabmeat in a fresh tomato sauce was flavorful and had a nice bite. A traditional chicken piccata—with a lemon, caper and butter sauce over sautéed chicken—was tasty. But the side of spaghetti with mediocre tomato sauce was a lackluster accompaniment, and the citrusy chicken was screaming for some fresh greens.
In tune with the rushed pace of the entire evening, desserts were brought to the table too quickly after ordering, making us wonder if they were just extracted from the freezer. The exotic bomba—a mango, passion fruit and raspberry sorbet dome covered in white chocolate—and the profiteroles with Chantilly cream and more chocolate were decadent enough. But something homemade—and not quite so contrived—would’ve been a better way to end the meal.
THE SKINNY: Grappa Café’s chief selling point is its casual, neighborhood feel. It’s intended to be a place where families and couples alike can come, wine in tow, for a memorable, authentic Italian meal. And, for the most part, Grappa does just that. Still, the place lacks individuality and culinary finesse. Service is friendly and efficient, but the menu is so extensive that nothing truly stands out. Instead of working with simple ingredients, the kitchen sends out heavy, cream-laden dishes that mask authentic Italian flavors.
Grappa Café is a hit with locals, but only time will tell if large portions and convenience are enough to keep diners hungry for more. On another note, the tasty panini would make a nice weekday lunch option if you work in the area.
Location: 19 E. Lancaster Ave., Paoli; (610) 889-4862, grappacafe.com.
Cuisine: Standard Italian.
Cost: First course and salads $6-$13, entrées $12-$27.
Atmosphere: Noisy and hurried, especially during weekend dinner service.
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday and Sunday 4-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-10 p.m.