Another Grano operation offers more to love
First, there was Grano Pasta Bar, aka little Grano, offering pasta dishes with homemade sauces (though not homemade noodles) from a storefront in Hampden. Now, there is Grano at Chestnut, aka big Grano (OK, maybe I'm the only one calling it that), offering pasta dishes with homemade sauces (natch again on the noodles) from a storefront in Hampden. Confused? Don't be. Aside from a shared name, a BYOB policy, and ownership by group that includes sauce guru Gino Troia, the restaurants offer distinctly different dining experiences (though less distinctly different menus).
Where little Grano is hip and frenzied, big Grano is homey and leisurely. Little Grano offers barstools and counter service; at big Grano, patrons sit down to tables and cutlery that look as if they were lifted from someone's grandmother's dining room. Little Grano is a steal, with pastas running between $8 and $12. The restaurant on Chestnut is more expensive (pastas at big Grano start at $12 and run upwards to $24), but it makes sense that tablecloths and table service merit an extra charge. And you go to little Grano à deux or by yourself when you need a quick, cheap bite before rehearsal; the restaurant does not take reservations. Big Grano is for impromptu meals with friends or when you're trying to feed a group that includes, say, a vegetarian, a small child, and a picky eater. Unless pasta is not your thing--and granted, that's a big "unless"--Grano on Chestnut, like its 36th Street counterpart, is a pleaser.
Although the space at 3547 Chestnut Ave. has felt cozy in all its recent restaurant incarnations, from Alice Ann Finnerty's discreet tearoom to Rodney Henry's rock 'n' roll pie operation, it now feels warmer than ever. Patrons are greeted in the sunroom-cum-lobby by pleasant staff and a board of gorgeous Bonaparte Bakery bread ready for its Saveur close-up. The host stand simply may be a convenient place to do bread service, but it plants the seed. I want bread, I think as we follow our hostess through the brightly colored dining room and up the stairs to a second dining room, paler and set with tables mostly around the perimeter to make it feel slightly roomier than below, though chances are it's not.
Soon bread is offered (the menu, if not the server, alerts you to the $2.50 surcharge for the basket), wine is uncorked (corkage $3/bottle), and beer stashed away in the fridge, but not before the server ascertains which bottle from a mixed six pack should be served next. This is gracious service, as is the patience shown waiting for a child to decide between limonata and ginger ale. And when this server tells you he is called Billy, it just seems right--and not too casual or overly familiar--to know his name. He is clearly taking care.
The same care is taken in the restaurant's preparations, which are mostly pasta, with a smattering of salads, antipasti, and a daily special or two. Clams for the linguine vongole positano are farm-raised on the Eastern Shore; ground beef and pancetta are noted as Springfield Farm-raised. And unlike little Grano, which urges customers to mix and match their own choice of pasta and sauce, Grano on Chestnut does this for you. The menu sticks fairly closely to classic pairings, so Bolognese sauce coats egg fettuccine, pesto clings to spaghetti, and angel hair curls around mini clams, shrimp, and mussels in the angeli del mare.
If, by chance, the white anchovy salad ($8.50) is on the list of specials when you visit, by all means, order it. It's visually splendid: silvery white marinated fish fillets reclining amongst verdant arugula, tomato dice, and thick slices of hard-boiled egg. It tastes pretty swell, too, the meaty little fillets a salty-tangy complement to the peppery greens and bland eggs. The caesar ($4/half, $6/whole) is less interesting, but maybe serving it in a prettier dish rather than a plain white bowl and tossing in a couple of anchovies might help. I also would have been tempted by the salumi plate had it been available.
Many of the preparations here are ones a home chef could tackle in his or her kitchen, like the farfalle con pancetta e piselli ($13). A popular Marcella Hazan version of this recipe calls for boiled, unsmoked ham and cream, but Grano's version is both lighter and deeper in flavor, replacing the cream with a deep brown, slightly caramelized broth and the ham with ridiculously good nutty cubes of pancetta. For a simple dish, it was undeniably a table favorite.
Grano doesn't offer pizza, but penne alla norma ($16), a hearty mélange of tomatoes, half-moon slices of baby eggplants cooked until sweet, bound together by just enough mozzarella, suggested a pasta version of a combination most usually found on a crust. Spaghetti al pesto ($15) and the linguine with clams ($16) both were straightforward renditions of classics served in generous portions.
Grano's entrée specials change frequently, but we were lucky enough to dine on a night when braciolini ($22) were available. These tender little beef rolls stuffed tightly with pine nuts and cheese and served with house-made gnocchi, the whole plate napped with tomato sauce, were homey and old-fashioned, the kind of dish an Italian mama or nonna would make, and I'd love to see more of this kind of non-pasta entrée on the menu.
For dessert, you can tap into a perfectly nice cannoli ($3.75), but better yet is a creamy disc of coconut flan ($3.75) or a tiramisu ($6.50) that packs a wallop of booze and caffeine.
Grano at Chestnut can be busy, and therefore noisy, but it's also pretty family-friendly, which is a plus in a neighborhood peopled with young eaters. From our upstairs vantage point near the window, the youngster at our table spied a friend walking along the avenue with her parents. I wonder if when she sees her next she'll tell that friend about the pesto and invite her along to dinner. I would.