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Atlanta Classic, La Grotta Ristorante Italiano

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.

AJC Dining Team member Jon Watson writes about popular eats.

AJC Dining Team member Jon Watson writes about popular eats.

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.

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

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

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

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

19 comments Add your comment

Ned Ludd

January 10th, 2013
8:43 am

Dinner here should be a prerequisite for anyone considering opening a restaurant.

FM Fats

January 10th, 2013
9:51 am

Last time I ate at La Grotta, there was a dog sitting at the next table. In the dining room. I prefer that to children, to be honest.

JIMBOB

January 10th, 2013
9:53 am

kind of odd that the address is not provided here, although I can use the google to find it.

JIMBOB

January 10th, 2013
9:57 am

Never mind. Direct link to their website is as good as provision of address.

Edward

January 10th, 2013
10:38 am

Christian and the entire team at La Grotta make this a wonderful dining experience. I only get there about twice a year, but those times are a highlight. This is the place to go with those good friends that you want to linger with, sharing in the skillfully conceived and prepared dishes and good wine. Service is always spot-on, attentive but never hovering. Call it old-school but it works and is a respite from some of the more modern interpretations of “fine dining” that can be jarringly loud, rushed, or pretentious.

OTP

January 10th, 2013
12:18 pm

I have to say I did not want to like La Grotta; but, each time I visit, I am pleased. It is very “old school”. You will usually encounter regulars there – those that have been eating there nearly as long as it has existed. I am fortunate enough to be taken there about once a year by my elderly in-laws. They seem to go there often. The dining room is always full. I have never worn a jacket and have never received an odd look; but it is good to go there nicely dressed. It is a great place to people watch, though, as some people are clearly there for the first time, and you will also encounter a well known celebrity from time to time, as well as older gentlemen with much younger ladies! The food and service are beyond reproach. (I would not recommend the Perimeter location, though-totally different, not sure why.) Sergio always speaks with us, and Luigi is one of the best servers you will ever encounter. The prices are more reasonable than you would think. The menu has something for everyone. I recently had a really good filet of beef there, done Italian style. Thanks for writing about this “old” “standard”. They have survived because they do it right!

Meli

January 10th, 2013
1:07 pm

La Grotta flies in the face of the conventional Atlanta restaurant scene, which seemingly thinks a restaurant should only be open a couple of years and then shut down.

michael

January 10th, 2013
2:23 pm

My wife and I have been enjoying this restaurant since moving to Atlanta from New York in 1982. It is very comforting to know that tradition and innovation exists side by side in this outstanding restaurant. Whether it is Sergio or Chrisitian greeting you at the host stand and personally escorting you to your table, the staff and of course Chef Tony are totally dedicated to making your experience memorable.

Sheriff John Brown

January 11th, 2013
6:47 am

Jon, While I appreciate you providing a complete picture of the dining experience…did you only try 5 items on the menu and 2 large plates? What are other diners fav 3

Sheroq

January 11th, 2013
10:08 am

A wonderful restaurant…Great Food and Great Service! The servers were great! Definitely a staple on my list.

Paul J

January 11th, 2013
10:20 am

Wow!!! I love it!! I really love foods and I also love exploring different foods. I think, I should ask my friends to have dinner here at La Grotta. Is that a Steak up there? I have tried to cook T-bone Steak and it makes me love steaks. Hehehe lol.

Kathy Cervino

January 11th, 2013
2:23 pm

This restaurant is top class all the way. Sergio, who comes with plenty of skills having worked in the “Savoy” hotel in London and having served people like Jackie Onassis and Winston Churchill, knows how to treat the customer. I can’t say enough about his son Christian. Together, they make a fantastic team. They always show an interest in their guests and treat them like friends, with a formal touch. There are a fair share of VIPs that come through these doors. It may be underground, but in the world of fine dining it is on top of the world!!!

Eda

January 12th, 2013
9:27 am

I remember a radio personality (Ludlow Porch?) who always commented that La Grotta was his favorite Italian restaurant. I had wanted to try it for years. My husband and I finally dined there last year. We absolutely loved the ambiance, the elegance (white tablecloths, beautiful decor), the service (!), and of course, the food. Many of Atlanta’s finer restaurants have dumped the idea of tablecloths, opting for an almost Danish modern starkness: bare tables, plain dishes, stark walls. La Grotta is a welcome respite from all of that. Needless to say, we will be back.

Favalli Ivan

January 13th, 2013
5:14 am

Complimenti allo Zio e alla Grotta, la mia esperienza presso il Ristorante 20 anni fà mi ha dato una base per essere in Italia un ristoratore di successo, una scuola della tradizione ormai spesso dimenticata. W la Grotta !

Art

January 13th, 2013
2:12 pm

La Grotta is an Atlanta institution… It sets the bar for fine dining. The special wine dinners that are held throughout the year are truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Saundra Taylor

January 14th, 2013
1:25 pm

This has been by all time favorite restaurant since it opened in the seventies, just wish I went there more often than I do. The service and food is the best and the dining experience is fantastic.

Tyrone Biggums

January 14th, 2013
4:24 pm

Terrific food and service. Though the clientele seems to be entirely 60+.

AlissaT.

January 14th, 2013
4:34 pm

Seriously? La Grotta? We called it La Catacomba. We knew we were in trouble when we ordered Campari and orange jucie and the orange juice was canned. The food – at least what we ordered – was totally undistinguished – snails and duck breast. We love both – but not the way La Grotta served it. The service is obsequious and intrusive. The whole place seems jelled in aspic since the 1950s. We ran (metaphorically-speaking) screaming out of there.

Lizzy

January 15th, 2013
9:02 am

Out of 17 glowing reviews, the 18th by Alissa (the name screams at least a Gen X’er probably younger) was jarring. I’m embarrassed for you – that’s how badly your input came across. What would be a great recommendation from you…….maybe Flip Burger…..trendy with a mid price point? Kitty Cat, stay with the kiddies lest you show your lack of sophistication and taste to the adults on this blog..