Gratzzi is one of those restaurants that seems completely comfortable with itself. It knows the kind of spot it wants to be and lives up to it, casual but nice, affordable but with upscale possibilities, with that effortless lived-in feel that usually comes from years getting a location and staff just right. Not bad for a restaurant that just reopened in a new space earlier this year.
This St. Pete Italian restaurant got its start in Baywalk, gained a fairly sizable fan base, then started to feel the pinch of the downtown mall's slide into obsolescence. Gratzzi closed in 2009, at the same time Pacific Wave shut its doors on Second Street. It took a long time — almost a year — but Gratzzi moved in, with a slightly updated look and a menu that takes into account the changing economic times that contributed to the problems at Baywalk.
That means you'll find Chilean sea bass for $25 and beef tenderloin at $26, but you can also order a sizable plate of pasta for $15 or less. Chicken parm shares menu space with veal saltimbocca and an $18 sirloin sits next to a $30 rack of lamb. Or, snag a pizza.
If you're dining in, Gratzzi will serve you a personal pizza for around $12, the thin crust more flaccid than snappy but topped with rich buffalo mozzarella and tart tomato sauce accented with plenty of oregano. Those pies are better ordered to go, massive 18-inch versions where the floppy slices are made more manageable with standard fold-and-eat technique.
Soups at Gratzzi — even ubiquitous pasta e fagioli and Italian wedding — are fantastic. The wedding soup is dotted with tiny tender meatballs and soft pasta, the addition of meaty chicken breast giving it some weight. In the restaurant's pasta e fagioli, easily one of the best vegetarian soups you'll find at any Bay-area Italian joint, perfect beans and plenty of orzo are infused with aromatic broth redolent of herbs and meaty parmigiano.
Gratzzi makes some of its pasta in-house, allowing it to serve cylinders of cavatelli made with ricotta — essentially ricotta gnocchi — that are so soft and delicate I'm surprised they could stay coherent long enough to be cooked. The sauce with the cavatelli is more pedestrian, an oily, bland pesto sparsely accented by sun-dried tomatoes and hunks of chicken, with enough garlic tossed in to fend off loved ones. Still, that pasta makes it worthwhile.
Most of the pasta dishes follow a similar formula — excellent noodles, heavy-handed sauces. Gratzzi's alfredo is dense with cheese and cream, and beschamel drowns the seafood in cannelloni, but the red sauce is much more capable. Ziti baked with goat cheese and meat sauce is heavy, but bright enough to keep you forking in more bites than you should, while the lasagna barely avoids collapsing into itself like a neutron star. A tasty neutron star.
Gratzzi's Italian entrees are all reliable recipes that veer more toward New York than the old country, with a few surprise influences — Cajun-seasoned tuna and mojo-marinated chicken — thrown in. The fish is a hit, seared crisp but just barely cooked through, with a profusion of mussels and clams and a garlicky tomato sauce thin enough to brighten without overwhelming the seafood. Steaks are salty and cooked to the right temp, although the seemingly requisite sauces and toppings ladled onto each tend to overdo things.
There's nothing unusual about any of the entrees, but Gratzzi hits the high notes, even when it seems like calories are more important than flavor. The staff is comfortable with the menu and the space, the decor fits the style of the menu so well it's like slipping on a favorite shirt, and the food is priced exactly as it should be. A family of four could have a weeknight pasta fest at Gratzzi at the same time a couple is celebrating a serious special occasion, all while the bar is packed with beer drinkers waiting for a pie and folks just off work are tossing back martinis and wine. And all of them would fit right in.
That's success, no matter how you measure it.
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