Conventional wisdom says that location is one of the most crucial parts of opening a restaurant. Fortunately for Atlanta, Sergio Favalli isn’t much for conventional wisdom.
As we enter into the lobby of the Peachtree House Condominiums, I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding in someone else’s home, which isn’t that far from the truth. We speak only in whispers as we follow the signs to the basement floor, until we find the unassuming door to La Grotta. We step through this portal to the 1970s and enter a world where a meal is an event, and the customer is still king.
Favalli moved to Atlanta in 1975 by way of Bermuda, as part of the opening team for Bugatti in the Omni Hotel. It was there that he met Antonio Abizanda, who would eventually partner with Favalli to open La Grotta Ristorante Italiano in 1978 as executive chef, a position he still holds nearly 35 years later. That sort of tenure for a chef is unheard of these days, especially for a chef like Abizanda who still works the line every night.
La Grotta brought Northern Italian cuisine to Atlanta on a scale the city had never seen before, and quickly became the gold standard for fine dining. And very little has changed since then.
It would be suicide in today’s market to open a fine-dining restaurant in this sort of odd-feeling basement location. Even in 1978, Favalli’s decision to set up shop in the subterranean cost him one of his original partners, who backed out after seeing the space. I’ll bet that guy has been kicking himself for the last few decades.
Everything about the experience here has the old-school feel to it. A practice long since abandoned by most modern restaurants, La Grotta still offers a menu so extensive that you may go cross-eyed with indecision.
To make your decision that much more difficult, Favalli and Abizanda still regularly add new dishes to the lineup, but never really let go of the old ones. As all of the regulars know, it doesn’t have to be on the menu to make it onto your table. As long as the kitchen has the ingredients, they are happy to whip up whatever dish your heart desires. Though they have not made an appearance on the menu in years, the kitchen always keeps a stash of smoked salmon or fresh mozzarella di bufala on hand.
If all you crave is a simple bowl of spaghetti with marinara ($5.95), you can easily scratch that itch with a side of the freshly made pasta. But a better place to start may be with an order of the Carpaccio All’Italiana ($11.95), a classic beef tenderloin carpaccio topped with manchego, grilled artichokes, and black truffle dressing. And Abizanda knows his way around a cut of veal, as evidenced by a bite of the luxurious grilled bone-in veal chop ($38.95), masterfully butchered and cooked to a perfect medium rare.
From the moment that you enter and either Favalli or his son Christian, who became a partner five years ago, greets you at the door, it is clear that service is a top priority here. The only evidence that La Grotta has adapted to the increasingly casual state of dining in America is that they shed the requirement that gentlemen wear a jacket. And even then, I’d still say it is recommended, lest you catch some sideways looks from the regulars.
While you can likely expect a server with more than 15 years of experience at La Grotta, as well versed in the menu as
in the impressive wine list, what you really get here is a team. Any member of Favalli’s staff that walks by is just as likely to stop, ask if you need anything, take your order, scrape the crumbs from the tablecloth, or top off your drink. Not once do you hear, “I’ll go grab your server for you, just one moment.” Some dining trends should have stayed in style, and it is refreshing to see that not everyone has abandoned top-quality service.
La Grotta deftly walks the fine line between outdated and classic. Favalli has managed to stay current where needed, such as updating the decor or offering a three-course prix fixe “stimulus menu,” and wisely maintained many of the traditions upon which the restaurant was founded. La Grotta keeps the best of a time gone by, while still offering plates of food that can stand up against some of the best of Atlanta’s new generation of chefs.La Grotta Ristorante Italiano — Buckhead Food: Italian fine dining Service: Top-notch Best dishes: Carpaccio All’Italiana, grilled veal chop Vegetarian selections: Multiple, and the kitchen will make vegetarian version of any dish upon request. Price range: $$-$$$ Credit cards: All major credit cards Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, closed Sundays Children: Older, well-behaved children welcome Parking: Complimentary valet Reservations: Recommended Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Low Patio: Outdoor courtyard seating when weather permits Takeout: Yes