Grateful for Grato

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A Broadway opening night: Intermission. The excitement in the air overwhelms. Everyone seems happy just to be there—even the theater owner is smiling broadly. The sweet sound of success…the “Baby, it’s a hit!” kind of moment.

Anyone who has experienced that kind of twinkling will immediately recognize the energy and excitement of Palm Beach’s newest restaurant phenomenon, Grato, which opened this January, across the bridge in West Palm Beach. No surprise, though, since Grato is the creation of sensational Palm Beach chef Clay Conley, whose innovative, world-class Buccan is the “no wonder it’s number one” restaurant in the area. My husband, Bill, and I could not wait to try this new kid in town.

We arrived for our first visit a little before 4:30, when Grato (which is Italian for “grateful”) opens for business. I wanted window light to photograph Clay, and we thought we would be the only ones there. We were not. Even before it opened, people were coming in and within a few minutes the bar was S.R.O. By the time we left, though still too early for normal dining, every seat was filled and the bar was three deep. The next night was utterly crazy jumping! Even though it was still early in the evening, there was a three-hour wait for costumers without reservations, forcing valet parking to turn cars away. Word was out; Grato was a most exciting dining experience. Nah, that was not the word that was circulating around town—it was smokin’ hot!

If Buccan is one of Palm Beach’s Upper East Side–style bistros, then Grato is a Tribeca brasserie: open, casual, cavernous, utilities exposed, friendly, and “with it.” The wait staff is young, fun, and smooth. Everything about Grato signaled a really fun evening was about to be had.

Tuscan in style but innovative in flavor, Grato offers a simple menu featuring unexpected variations on the usual, predictable Italian fare. The crostini, for example, are priced by the piece, and there are four choices: buffalo ricotta with tomatoes, chicken liver with pickles and radish, beef tartare with horseradish and balsamic onion, and Parmesan fonduta with grilled zucchini and black truffle. We also ordered spicy meatballs cacciatore-style with ground pork, Marsala-braised pork shoulder, and housemade Italian sausage served in a casserole dish with “hunter-style” sauce of diced pancetta, red bell pepper, onion, garlic…like I said—spicy. The pasta is housemade as well, and as a measure for great pasta dishes, our Italian guest ordered Bucatini Carbonara. The test? Would Grato’s carbonara have the egg yolk sitting on top of the pasta or would it be stirred in? Test passed; this miner’s pasta made with ham and bacon had its egg delicately placed on top to break with the first bite. Also ordered? An awesome porchetta—rotisserie pork shoulder with polenta in a creamy mustard sauce.

It really won’t matter how good this menu is for I have found my dream brick-oven pizza—The Dak—and for that may I say, Grato! Named for Dak Kerprich from Pizzeria Oceano in Lantana, Florida, this white pizza took me back to Strausbourg and to Alsatian tarte flambée (or flammeküeche), but instead of crème fraîche, Clay’s wife, Averill, describes this bit of heaven as made with Béchamel with white onion and rosemary. The cheeses are mozzarella curd, provolone, and Parmesan. Slices of pit ham cover the pie and it is finished with olive oil when it comes out of the oven. Other brick-oven pizzas include a Margherita, Italian sausage with fontina, broccoli rabe, Calabrese chilies and herb sauce, eggplant Parmesan, artisan pepperoni, and Hawaiian with spit-roasted pineapple, roasted pork, and pickled jalapeños, but my heart belongs to Dak.

We never made it to the dessert. Maybe next time I will manage the bourbon-butter pecan or cocoa gelato. Until then…ciao, Dak.