Step inside the former Chester Savings Bank and you’ll find a wealth of treasures. Not from the vault—they’ve got designs on that for a private dining area, actually. The richness of what’s fresh, local and unique is coming straight from the heart and kitchen of Chef Joel Gargano. With his wife and partner, Lani, together, they’ve brought his vision to life in twelve short weeks. “It’s all been up here—in my head—for years,” Joel said.
In his younger 20s, when Joel Gargano dreamed of owning a restaurant someday, he kept telling himself, “I’m never gonna open an Italian restaurant. The last thing Connecticut needs is another Italian restaurant.” But luckily, as he learned more about food, he changed his mind. Because Grano Arso is Italian food as it’s meant to be-- true to the chef’s philosophy—and that of Italian food, in general: fresh ingredients, a menu to change with the seasons, not making it fussy. And you can take that to the bank.
He’s been “handling dough” since he was thirteen, when he joined his dad at Castellon Brothers Bakery in Branford. “I would work the night shift with my dad on Saturday nights and wash dishes after school. I learned a lot with my dad. Memories that stick with you of, at 4 a.m., when the bread was coming out of the oven, super-hot—like soft rolls and bagels and things like that. It would be dead cold outside, middle of winter, and my dad would let me take a breather on the park bench. I’m steaming hot outside, eating a bagel that just came out of the oven. From then on, you like doing it, you enjoy the work.”
“It’s a labor of love,” Joel explains. “It’s a very tactile kind of thing. Gluten--once you understand how it works—there’s nothing else on this planet like it. And the two best utilizations of this amazing thing called wheat is bread and pasta.”
From the bread and butter served when you first settle in, to the different grains they mill (yes, you read that right) to make their bread and pasta--rye and spelt, just for two—you’re in for something different and delicious here.
“We buy the grain whole from local farmers in Coventry and Four Star Farm in Northfield, Massachusetts. And they have incredible grain. We have a mill and put the whole grain through and create our own flour. And lots of people might ask well, why would you do that? Just order it from the supplier. You could still make great pasta and great bread doing that. For us, to really make our product unique, and to really put all the effort behind it, we want to get the best things we can get our hands on—and, at the same time, support people in the state that are just as passionate about what they’re doing.”
“Bread takes a lot of effort to get it right. It’s like caring for a child—the starter needs to be fed on a daily basis so it doesn’t die. We’re monitoring a living culture. If it’s not fed properly, it dies or gets sick—too sour—and ruins the bread. So it really has to be perfect. Training my staff to do that and getting them just as excited about it is fun for me because I like to mentor, that’s the teacher in me.”
We started our meal with several shareable plates.
Carrot crostini on crusty bread with creamy whipped ricotta and the sweetness of roasted carrots and cippolini hit all the right notes.
The misticanza of local greens features chicories from Wellstone Farm in Higganum. Tossed with caramelized lemon vinaigrette and topped with a delicate, velvety-textured “snow” of Arethusa Tapping Reeve, the leaves are bright and vibrant with finely sliced radishes and a hearty garlic-rubbed toast.
“Ian really does a great job with those chicories. The leaves are very big, fresh, colorful—they really absorb the lemon vinaigrette,” Joel says. “We take lemons and we caramelize the rinds in sugar, then we slow-braise them in the oven till they completely melt out. Then we take that, put them in the blender to make a puree. So it really has this developed, caramelized, intense bitter note. And then we make this really intense lemon caramelized vinaigrette.” As a lemon lover, I was wowed by this salad. It was everything Joel and Lani described, with an artful balance of textures and flavors.
“When spring hits, it’s always cold here until about April, so produce doesn’t really start till May, but once we start getting snap peas and English peas, spring greens and spring onions, there’s gonna be a lot of green on the menu. As chefs, we’re always three months ahead, thinking about our dishes and making sure we can source correctly. For example, I have to plan with some of my growers what I want six months from now—because they’ll grow directly for us.”
We thoroughly enjoyed one of Lani’s favorite small plates, beet carpaccio. The thinly sliced red, orange and golden yellow beets and mustard greens, dressed with a blood orange salmoriglio and topped with coppa and candied pistachios are, as she describes, “a fusion of flavors that’s so delightful.”
Joel’s early passion for both food and teaching led him to Johnson & Wales where he earned a master’s degree in culinary education and secondary education with a minor in special ed, He smiles when he admits he can’t have just one job, and that he has 15 jobs at his own restaurant. His journey took him from Providence and his first mentors, Kristin and Matt Gennuso at Chez Pascal, to West Haven High School, Union League Café, Bar Bouchée, Higher One—where some 300 employees enjoyed his daily changing lunch program, Millwright’s, and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City where he taught full-time. Note: he worked several of these jobs concurrently. He learned to make pasta with Chef Jonathan Benno at Lincoln Ristorante (also in NYC), where he was inspired to embrace contemporary Italian.
“The menu will change as we feel,” Joel says. “Training these guys how to make pasta has been intense and fun. We’re very collaborative. We’re going to talk about it, we’re going to work the dish out, and we’re gonna make sure we both like it. And then we’re gonna cook it together and I’m gonna make sure you know how to do it, then we’re gonna give it to our guests and make sure they like it before we’re solid on it.” The teacher within Joel is always present. “It isn’t the cheap way to do it, but it’s the only way for me to make sure we’re confident that our guests will enjoy it.”
“Grain is an underutilized product in this state right now,” Joel says. ‘There are awesome farmers across the board here—from animal husbandry to beef, pork and chicken in general. I couldn’t name enough amazing people who grow awesome produce in this state and put a lot of effort into it—and they’re all friends of mine. Dairy and cheese, the same. But grain, you don’t hear a lot of people utilizing grain. For us to make the effort to mill the grain every single day, to turn it into our bread and pasta. Even finding other cool things to do with it, like on our gnocchi dish, we’re boiling it, dehydrating it, throwing it in the deep fryer to puff it, and now it’s like crunchy rye cereal.”
“I cannot wait till you try our gnocchi dish—the combination of brown butter with the rye puff,” Lani says. “It just enhances the dish to a whole different level. It adds texture and his gnocchi—and I’m not saying this because he’s my husband—his is very soft, very tender, very light. In combination with the rye puff and the pumpkin seeds and the brown butter, it just really takes you away.” When I say it sounds like fall, Lani agrees it’s a perfect description. “It’s probably one of my favorite dishes. When I first tried it, I couldn’t stop saying Ohmygod, ohmygod—it’s so good!” Joel adds, “And when I get her approval on the first try, I know I hit it.”
One of my favorite dishes was the spelt spaghetti with broccolini pesto and Stonington reds. Neptune, the Stonington-based fishing boat, brings in royal red shrimp from the deep water of the Atlantic. Prepared with olive oil, roasted garlic and a quick 20 seconds to toss with the shrimp, it’s another colorful fusion of flavors. A pop of lemon, the bright green pesto, the red, sweet, tender shrimp with a bit of crunch from the toasted breadcrumbs—it will spoil you for both local pasta and Stonington reds!
The rye calamarata with chicken sausage, radicchio and almonds is another must-try. The sausage is exceedingly tender. And the orange gremolata adds a bright note of citrus.
The conchiglie con Bolognese--little shells in a rich, meaty Bolognese—is topped with a creamy fonduta.
With other options from a roasted half chicken to frutti di mare or a Niman Ranch 12-oz. NY strip, there’s something for everyone on the menu here.
Lest we forget it’s not just about eating, the Lani martini is a fragrant vanilla and lemongrass-vodka spiked standout with tarragon and Yellow Chartreuse. Garnished with a candied lemon wheel, it’s crunchy, sweet and lemony all at the same time.
And to cure what ails you, Rose’s penicillin is downright therapeutic with Dorothy Parker gin, ginger, honey, lemon and rosewater, garnished with a slice of crunchy, candied ginger. Of course, there’s wine. And then dessert!
The butterscotch budino with cherries soaked in amaro is topped with whipped cream and crunchy chocolate crumbs.
The winter wheat quince crostata with whipped ricotta, apple brandy and hazelnuts is so finely textured, the delicate crust crumbles in your mouth.
They plan to open for lunch in the spring with outdoor, dog-friendly seating for twelve. In the meantime, look for Joel on Better Connecticut (WFSB-3) December 5th. And for the love of good grain, andiamo—let’s go—to Grano Arso … again and again.
[Photography courtesy of Lani Gargano