From Peachtree Road, the only marker is a small sign out front. But take an elevator down from the lobby to the grotto-like entryway, and you emerge in an intimate dining room with windows that look out on a lush courtyard garden.
Favalli’s son, Christian, started out as a busboy at La Grotta. Now a co-owner, the 51-year-old is carrying on with his father in the front of the house. When Abizanda retired two years ago, longtime Atlanta chef Daniel Chance took over in the kitchen.
On a recent afternoon, Christian Favalli sat down at La Grotta to discuss the storied restaurant. He recalled how his Italian family moved from Bermuda to Atlanta in 1975 and that his father opened his own restaurant a few years later.
“He was the managing partner of the food and beverage program at Bugatti Restaurant at the Omni Hotel,” Favalli said. “A lot of his clientele were coming from Buckhead, and they would say, ‘Why don’t you open a place in Buckhead?’ So he started looking and found this very unusual place.”
What started out as a fine dining restaurant has become more casual over the years.
“The food has changed a little bit, but we still concentrate on what we like to call the meat and three,” Favalli said. “We have a protein, a starch, and two daily vegetables, which we change throughout the year, depending on what’s locally available.”
A few items have been on the menu since day one, though regulars know the art of ordering off-menu.
“The Dover sole and the veal chop are two items that have been on the menu since we opened, and probably have not changed,” Favalli said. “But if an item isn’t on the menu that someone wants, and the kitchen has the ingredients, they’ll do it. Often it’s something like chicken or veal piccata, and some nights half the orders are special requests.”
There are only six seats at the cozy corner bar, but not surprisingly, wine and spirits are carefully curated with regulars in mind, too.
Currently, there are some 450 labels on the wine list, with a focus on the major regions of Italy, plus domestic and international wines in every price range.
“We’ve gained this super clientele over the years,” Favalli noted. “We have some liquor down below the bar that people only order two or three times a year. But we keep it there because we know that person is going to be coming back, and they’ll want it.”
Unlike the food and hospitality, La Grotta’s decor is ever-evolving, with regular updates of the upholstery, carpeting and paint scheme.
“About every 10 to 14 years, we do a major renovation to bring things up to speed,” Favalli said. “In this last incarnation we thought let’s really capitalize on the fact that this is like a speakeasy, and make it feel like you’re coming down into someone’s subterranean wine cellar.” Among the changes, they added brick elements, softened the color palate and renovated the patio.
But beyond the cuisine or the interior design, what’s most notably stood the test of time is the staff and the clientele.
“We have a loyal staff and loyal clientele that have been with us for 30 or 40 years,” Favalli said. “We still have people who come here that were here on the very first day. And it’s now their children and their children’s children that are coming in, so it’s become multi-generational.
Favalli said that some patrons in their 20s and 30s tell him that their first “visit” to La Grotta was when their mothers dined there while pregnant with them. ”I was probably bussing their table,” Favalli said. “I’m still bussing tables. I’m just wearing a different suit now.”
La Grotta Ristorante Italiano. 2637 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta; 404-231-1368, lagrottaatlanta.com.
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