Chester’s Grano Arso, a new seasonally inspired Italian restaurant, came together quickly and fortuitously for first-time owner Joel Gargano.
The chef, a native of Branford, became familiar with the charming community a few years ago while buying produce at the town’s popular farmers’ market. In the years following, he lived and worked in New York City, met his wife, Lani, and eventually returned to his home state, looking for new opportunities.
During a “1 a.m. moment,” he says, he scrolled through property listings online and zeroed in on a new available building — a former bank in the center of Chester, which had previously housed Six Main, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant. When Six Main closed in 2014, the next tenant used the building as office space for a line of organic personal-care products.
Gargano was ready to make it a restaurant again. In just 12 weeks, he, Lani and their team transformed the space into a warm, welcoming 40-seat eatery serving fresh housemade pastas, artisanal breads and locally sourced meat and fish entrees with traditional Italian influence. Grano Arso opened its doors on Nov. 10.
“It just so happened that I was lucky enough that what I wanted to do matched the space, matched the area, matched the need,” he says. “I’m very fortunate.”
Gargano, who comes from a family of bakers, is a graduate of Johnson & Wales’ culinary program and built his resume in kitchens in Connecticut, Providence, R.I. and New York City. He counts his time at Providence’s Chez Pascal, working for restaurateurs Kristin and Matthew Gennuso, as some of his “formative years,” where he learned the importance of building relationships with local farmers. Later, he says his cooking reached “a new level of maturity,” working for chef-owner Tyler Anderson at Millwright’s in Simsbury and chef Jonathan Benno at Lincoln Restaurant in New York.
Grano arso, which translates to “burnt grain,” refers to a product native to the Puglia region of Italy, Gargano says.
Grano Arso’s team has relationships with local producers like Wellstone Farm in Higganum and Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston, R.I. and sources seafood from Stonington. But beyond vegetables, meat and fish, Grano Arso is also getting its grain from local purveyors like Still River Farm in Coventry and Four Star Farm in Northfield, Mass., along with milled flour from Maine Grains in Skowhegan, Maine (which is delivered fresh weekly.)
Chefs also mill grains in house to be used in Grano Arso’s bread, served with cultured butter, and its rotating pastas.
THE ATMOSPHERE: The Garganos turned to local artists and designers for the restaurant’s contemporary look: designers and builders Harvest Moon, their neighbors on Main Street in Chester, and Dave Herrle of Herrle Custom Carpentry; banquettes designed by Sue Lennox of Nautical Needles, a striking custom mural of wheat stalks by artist Jaime LaDucer of Chalk Art New England and pottery by Lauren DeMaio of Livin Muddy Studio. A wall-mounted pegboard overlooking the dining room displays knickknacks and cookbooks, and another hangs behind the bar, showcasing bottles of spirits.
FEATURED/NOTEWORTHY DISHES: Grano Arso’s menu is small and focused, with about six small plates, five to six pasta dishes (in small and larger sizes) and a handful of meat and fish entrees. Standouts and early favorites include starters of burrata with warm glazed carrots, mint and caraway cracker; eggplant al forno with marinara, house ricotta and basil; and entrees of pan-seared salmon with whole grains and kohlrabi, radish, coriander and Dijon mustard; and roasted half chicken with sweet potato, rutabaga and apples.
New pastas set to join the menu include a saffron malloreddus (Sardinian gnocchi) with lamb, braised cipollini onions, kale, preserved lemon and ricotta; and flower-shaped campanelle amatriciana with pancetta, San Marzano tomato, red onion, garlic, chili and smoked ricotta salata.
Guests also enjoy side dishes like polenta with mascarpone, wheat berries with roasted cauliflower and beef meatballs.
“When I design a menu, there are things that we like to flip frequently and make really exciting,” Gargano says. “At the same time, we want to make sure that when people come in here, if they’re not up for a pasta with saffron and lamb in it, they might feel more comfortable with bolognese and a meatball.”
Desserts include a butterscotch budino with Luxardo cherries, chocolate crumb and whipped cream and a molten chocolate cake with chestnut ice cream.
THE BAR: Director of operations/beverage director Tiffany Nevers leads Grano Arso’s bar program, featuring a streamlined wine list with an emphasis on intriguing Italian varietals and a few local draft beers. Cocktails are stylish, like the Rose’s Penicillin with Dorothy Parker gin, ginger, honey, lemon and rose water garnished with an ice cube studded with chamomile buds and a Lani’s Martini, with lemongrass-infused Prairie organic vodka, tarragon, yellow chartreuse and lemon. Read more about Grano Arso’s cocktails here.
PRICING: Small plates/starters are $7 to $22. Pastas in small and large portions are $15 to $22. Entrees are $24 to $30; sides are $8 to $14. Cocktails are $11 to $15.
HOURS: Grano Arso is open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. The restaurant hopes to add weekend lunch hours in the spring.
Grano Arso is at 6 Main St. in Chester. 860-322-3143 and granoct.com.