What Made Us Lou Foodies: The Tasty Legacy Of Casa Grisanti

Nov 13, 2019 at 11:28 am
Casa Grisanti

As hard as it is to imagine now, there was a time when Louisville’s restaurant selection was limited, to say the least.

There were no Mexican, Indian, Thai, French, Japanese, Filipino, Latin American or vegetarian restaurants.

Brewpubs were unheard of.

Italian was considered exotic. Luvisi’s on Fifth Street had apparently served the city’s first pizza during World War II, and while its menu featured spaghetti, it also served chicken and “steaks and chops” to accommodate traditional meat-and-potatoes customers.

Then, in 1959, brothers Albert and Ferd Grisanti and cousin Dorina Mattei opened Casa Grisanti and brought Continental-style fine dining to Louisville. With white linens and table-side food preparation by tuxedo-clad servers, Casa Grisanti helped usher in an era of fine dining that would eventually lead to other formal dining rooms including The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel, the Brown Hotel’s English Grill and most directly, Vincenzo’s

It also introduced the people of Louisville to a world of tastes outside of steak and potatoes, leading to now — a city that Zagat says is one of the seven up-and-coming foodie towns in America and that Southern Living has called: “One of the top 10 tastiest towns.”

After founder Albert passed away, his sons Don and Michael assumed the running of the restaurant. And although Casa Grisanti closed in 1991, it also served as an incubator for what would become generations of the city’s culinary professionals, including restaurant owners and chefs, not to mention the scores of people who went on to work in kitchens and as servers in other restaurants.

One of those professionals was Steve Coomes, who was briefly a chef in the kitchen at Casa before spending a longer stint in another Grisanti family-owned restaurant, Sixth Avenue. Now a widely published food and beverage writer based in Louisville, Coomes credits Casa Grisanti with a lasting influence on the local restaurant zeitgeist.

“What Casa Grisanti brought to Louisville was not as much the food, but the service. Service was the most outstanding thing about it. It was brilliant,” he said.

Coomes named more than a dozen people who had worked at the Grisanti establishments. Many are still part of Louisville’s restaurant community to this day, as well as a new generation of restaurant professionals who worked for the people who worked for the Grisantis.

LEO caught up with 11 of them, and common themes emerged from those conversations about passion and commitment to food, service to customers and community engagement as important aspects of the Grisanti legacy through some of Louisville’s most prominent restaurant people.

1) Tim Coury 

Owner of Porcini, an Italian restaurant that opened in 1992. He met the restaurant’s chef, John Plymale, when they worked at Casa Grisanti. “I started there as a waiter at a college in the mid-’70s, and I worked there for good nine or 10 years. You know, it’s funny, I’ve talked to other folks in town in the restaurant business, and I tell them that it was the best restaurant here ever. Look at all the guys who have gone off and done their own places. It was the best training ground in Louisville [for chefs, servers, restauranteurs.].”

2) Vincenzo Gabriele 

Co-owner, with his brother, Chef Agostino Gabriele, of Vincenzo’s, which will have been in business 45 years in January. Agostino Gabriele’s sons, Michael and Carmelo, now own Sarino. Vincenzo was recruited by Michael Grisanti from Tony’s in St. Louis. “You know, we’ve put our emphasis on people, right. The way we say it is we honor people, business, serving food. And, you know, I tell my people all the time that if we take care of the guests, the guests, they take care the numbers. Plain and simple. A simple philosophy that I’ve adopted ever since I moved to Louisville in January 1975. I feel privileged to have had the honor of working with these people [Vincenzo’s staff] because they made it possible for me to be here today. We have now all sorts of restaurants in Louisville from different nationalities, which I think is wonderful and speaks volumes of the city. You know, that it is a city of immigrants. And we’re very proud of it. I’m one of them.”

3) Jeremy Johnson 

Owner and mixologist at Meta, a cocktail bar with a select wine and spirits shop, Show & Tell, attached. He worked for Michael Reidy at The Irish Rover, who worked at Sixth Avenue. “These legendary restaurant owners knew how to instill a passion in people. When you work with them day in and day out, even when they drive you crazy or even when they’re really hard on you, there’s definitely something that you’ll see in them that makes you want to do that yourself or makes you want to learn.

“My perception of how you treat your coworkers, that it’s a family, you know, that we’re all in this together. And I think that the family-like atmosphere is what saves small businesses during rough times. Places that don’t have that attitude are the ones that when times get rough, they can fail. They can fail really quickly. I think that culture is a direct descendant of what the Grisantis did. How they treated people.”

4) Rick Moir

A partner in the Olé Hospitality Group, which includes Taco Luchador, Guaca Mole and Steak & Bourbon. He worked with the late chef and owner Dean Corbett at Equus Restaurant & Jack’s Lounge. Corbett had cooked at Sixth Avenue. “Definitely the relationships, which I guess you can narrow down to service. One of the big things I learned from Dean was just taking care of people, listening to what they want and trying to accommodate them as best as possible. Everything I learned from Dean, both front of house and back house, was to say, ‘Yes,’ [to customers] within your means. He built so many great relationships with people that I joke sometimes that he could serve a Big Mac with fries, and you would think it was gourmet just because of the experience you were having. Chatting with him. People worked for Dean for 10, 15, 20, 30 years, amounts of time that you just don’t see in restaurants. Dean was always, ‘You know, you’re with me. You’re part of the team.’ We had such great opportunities at Equus & Jack’s to make something our own. And the people I worked with all stay in touch, like a family.”

5) Michael Reidy

Owner with his wife Siobhan of The Irish Rover pub. He worked at Sixth Avenue. “Those [owned by the Grisantis] were the restaurants that people paid attention to. They brought a sense of style and polish and the notion that they showed me how to dress or set a table in the French style or the Russian style and the English style, which are contrasting styles of setting tables. It was the type of training that you would do every night. They were able to sort out people who had a vocation for the business, which is a whole a different thing than a profession. Professionals do [a job] to make a living. But vocation is something that you feel that you love to do. Michael Grisanti said many times, ‘You know, you can’t work in this business unless you love it and love the people all the time.’ And they took the time to teach their staff how to do things right.”

6) Troy Ritchie

Manager and sommelier of the English Grill in The Brown Hotel. He worked with Dean Corbett at Equus Restaurant & Jack’s Lounge and Corbett’s: An American Place. “There’s definitely a philosophy of service as being the great thing. And you’re only as good as your last meal. There is no pass for less. There’s a real concerted effort to just work really hard to hit that mark. And there is a passion for the food itself. Beverage is in there, too. Dean let me take over the wine list when I was 23 at Equus … just let me start playing around and adding things. And I guess there is a passion from me for wine service. I think the influence of Michael (Grisanti) is that he is a genuine person. He was absolutely sincere about service and customer care, and I think that has transpired over these generations of restaurateurs. At the end of the day, I’m not motivated by money, a raise is not going to motivate me more. What does is the happiness received from the guest from that meal or that moment. That handshake, the smile, the satisfaction is what it’s about.”

7) Tavis Rockwell

Culinary director of LouVino and Biscuit Belly who worked with Corbett. “Dean would give you enough room to do your job and give you enough string to hang yourself. But he’d give you enough rope to succeed. He always took care of the people that took care of the business as well, and he would always have your back. He gave me all the chances to do a good job. And when I did, he would give me a little more insight to the whole thing. I started working at Equus when I was 21, and by 23, I was executive chef. And I always really enjoyed the charity events, such as March of Dimes and Bourbon and Bowties that benefits Norton Children’s Hospital. So, that was also part of his legacy. So is taking care of the people that mean the most to you. If your best line cook that doesn’t have any kind of insurance or anything and needs help, you help them. Dean helped start APRON [which grants funds to employees of independent restaurants who have emergencies] and he would always give a hand if needed.”

8) Susan Seiller

Owned and operated Louisville restaurants Jack Fry’s, La Paloma and Relish and now is food and beverage director of the Abiquiu Inn in Abiquiu, New Mexico. “I started at Casa as a server in 1976. And later I helped them open Mamma Grisanti as a manager. Don and Michael were extraordinarily professional. The organization was, first of all, known for quality. It was extremely well-run. You know, Vincenzo was the maître d’ at that time. These were career people working in their restaurants. So, there was a lot of opportunity for being mentored by several people in the organization, not just Don and Michael. They were what I call good pickers of people. Don and Michael had the vision and articulated it, but they had a team to execute it. And we were all a part of making that happen. And, so they were really influential in the way that I ended up running my businesses, with teams, too.”

9) Mehrzad Sharbaiani 

Owner of Z’s Oyster Bar & Steakhouse. He worked at Casa Grisanti. “Well, the main philosophy [from the Grisantis] is the service part of our industry. I learned all the basics there and worked there for 12 years. I started as a busboy and left as a general manager. You serve people, and to do that you need to know your product and be true to it. Really, we don’t do a whole lot. We just make sure that the product that we get is up to par. We go to the airport and pick up our own oysters and fish, and we make sure that when we serve it, it is up to our standards. And paying attention to detail and treating your guests like they’re the only one and taking care of your guests and making sure that your guest is always right. That’s basic.”

10) Jonathan Tarullo 

Partner and general manager of Volare. He worked for Corbett and Vincenzo Gabriele. Partner and Chef Joshua Moore had worked in the kitchen at Vincenzo’s and Porcini. “The legacy is good service. And for me personally delivering the best service. It was always the most important thing. After leaving Dean I worked with Vincenzo, a guy who has never met a stranger. [A customer] would come in like a lion. He wanted that customer to leave like a lamb. So, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great people and service is always keyed to getting to know the guests. I always try to give every guest whatever they want. And I never promised anything I couldn’t deliver.”

11) Griffin Paulin 

Chef and owner of Mirin, a ramen restaurant. He worked for Corbett at Corbett’s: An American Place. “I didn’t actually work for Dean for very long, like six months. I had called a buddy of mine who was the chef at Corbett’s at the time and he [said] Dean and I would love to have you. Stay as long as you want. So basically, the next day I was working at Corbett’s and Dean just gave me an open invite to hang as long as I wanted and leaving whenever the timing was right. And then I think I took a lot from that because it really empowers people to give you their best when they’re in your place, when they’re treated with such open arms and such. At the end of every shift, we would all sit down and discuss what we wanted to do for next week’s menu, what we wanted to do for a special, and everybody had input all the time. And I tried to carry that with me with my restaurant. Now, you know, I’ve got three legitimate chefs who work for me and they’ve all kind of put their egos aside and we all work on all of the food together. And I think it might not be that way had I not spent that time at Corbett’s.”