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First bite: University Place scores a win with Grassi’s Ristorante

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on June 6, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
June 5, 2014 2:16 pm
Ken, right, and Kim, left, with daughter, Melanie with a dish of rigatoni bolognese at the recently open Grassi's Ristorante. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Ken, right, and Kim, left, with daughter, Melanie with a dish of rigatoni bolognese at the recently open Grassi’s Ristorante. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Three forkfuls into a plate of bone-in short ribs set atop rigatoni pasta with house-smoked mushrooms, and I was ready to declare the dish one of the best I’ve ordered in 2014.

In fact, it was second only to the supple prime rib at the newly opened Smoke + Cedar.

Like Smoke + Cedar, Grassi’s Ristorante in University Place has a chef who produces terrific results using the slow-and-low cooking technique for beef. But more on that in a moment.

The Italian eatery that opened April 1 is a solid addition to a city short on independently owned restaurants. Besides Chambers Bay Grill at the golf course, Grassi’s is the sole semi-upscale dining venue in University Place — which probably sounds as odd to you as it does to me considering it’s a city with top-dollar-view homes. I have no clear answer for the dearth of restaurants (fine dining or otherwise, actually), but what I do know is that University Place residents support high-quality food – by shopping for it. The city is home to a Trader Joe’s, a Harbor Greens and soon will have a Whole Foods Market.

A packed parking lot on three visits indicated the locals already have discovered Grassi’s, which is why reservations are a good idea.

Short ribs, bone-in, with rigatoni and smoked mushrooms at Grassi's Ristorante.
Short ribs, bone-in, with rigatoni and smoked mushrooms at Grassi’s Ristorante.

My three anonymous visits gave me just a few nitpicky complaints worth noting: The dining room seating felt cramped no matter where I was seated; the spicing on the clam linguini was unapologetically lip stinging; a few items could have been hotter; and soggy salad croutons on every visit irritated me.

But if that’s all I can find to complain about, a restaurant is doing just fine. I recommend Grassi’s with few qualms.

The menu and execution reminded me of Marzano Italian Restaurant and Adriatic Grill, with good reason. Grassi’s executive chef Derek Bray spent two years cooking at Adriatic Grill, and Grassi’s owner Ken Grassi — a University Place city council member and longtime floral business owner with his wife, Kim — counts Marzano Italian Restaurant in Parkland among his favorites.

That is not to say that Grassi’s is derivative of those two longtime South Sound Italian eateries. Grassi’s, like Adriatic Grill and Marzano, has a talented chef executing a menu of signature dishes.

Chef Bray’s must-try signature items are the aforementioned slow-cooked, bone-in beef short ribs ($25) with those sublime house-smoked mushrooms set over rigatoni; and any dish with the house bolognese sauce, long simmered with three kinds of meat: ground beef; sausage; and silky-textured, slow-cooked brisket.

With the slow-cooked meat dishes, a diner must know that fat is as much a flavor component as any other ingredient in the dish. Diet dining, it’s not.

Grassi’s menu is comfortable Italian fare painted with broad Northwest brush strokes. At lunch, find eight sandwiches ($12-$13) with as many pastas ($13-$16) and entree-portion salads ($10-$19).

Italian wedding soup at Grassi's.
Italian wedding soup at Grassi’s.

Entrees and pasta at lunch or dinner come with a salad or soup (a freebie that’s practically disappeared from many restaurants) along with Grassi’s endless plates of bread and butter. Lovely salads, topped with fresh mozzarella, came straight out of a chiller — which probably was why croutons got soggy. The house Italian wedding soup was the finest I’ve had in these parts outside of Pizza Casa’s version.

At dinner, find six pastas ($14.50-$19) and equal choices of heartier entrees, including grilled rib-eye ($27), seared salmon ($22) and Parmesan sage chicken ($19).

Lighter diners, rejoice. At lunch and dinner, find a similar salad entree menu ($12-$19) that was served during Grassi’s former life as a boutique and cafe, which had a sandwich-and-salad menu and operated for 23 years in the University of Washington Tacoma neighborhood.

An intersection of circumstances moved Grassi’s UWT business to University Place. About the same time they learned they’d lose their UWT parking lot to a construction project, Gay Landry announced she was closing Affairs Cafe in University Place. It took about a year to ready the space. They expanded the Grassi’s concept to a full-service Italian eatery and moved the boutique next door.

Grassi’s decor feels quite homespun, with family pictures decorating the entry and interesting antiques and decor items nudged into most nooks and corners (which also translated into cramped seating).

Service was friendly and genuine, from the wine banter to frequent table check-ins.

Basil marinara, with beef meatballs at Grassi's Ristorante.
Basil marinara, with beef meatballs at Grassi’s Ristorante.

Go hungry, but you won’t leave that way. A lunchtime meatball sandwich ($12) built on sturdy ciabatta required fork-and-knife deconstructing of the deliciously sloppy tower of ground beef meatballs made the old-fashioned way with a milk-bread sponge. Those same soft-textured meatballs enlivened al dente spaghetti ($13 lunch/$14.50 dinner) with a basil-licked marinara.

The three-meat brisket bolognese showed up twice: on a plate of rigatoni ($15/$16), the garlic-tinged tomato sauce lightened with a splash of cream, and with fresh-pasta lasagna ($15/$16) layered with ricotta and a nutmeg-tinged bechamel that softened the flavor and texture.

Clam linguini at Grassi's Ristorante.
Clam linguini at Grassi’s Ristorante.

Clam linguini ($15/$19) contained a generous portion of bivalves nudged open from a steamy wine bath, the dish finished with enough red pepper flakes to leave a lasting sting (beware). Pesto chicken ($14/$15) was built with a cream-laden basil pesto sauce, a hefty serving of al dente linguini, and sliced chicken breast.

Definitely leave room for dessert. Steer toward the signature sour cream lemon pie ($4), a sweet-sour intersection of dairy-driven decadence; or the pistachio bliss ($6.50), gelato topped with brittle candy, threaded with whole pistachios, with the most delicate buttery snap.

Grassi’s Ristorante
Where: 2811 Bridgeport Way W., University Place; 253-565-0633 or
Serving: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Forecast: Excellent opening with few flaws  – highly recommended.
Menu: Italian fare brushed with Northwest flavors. Dinner pastas priced $14.50-$19; heartier entrees priced $19-$27. At lunch, sandwiches and pastas were $12-$16. All entrees and pastas served with soup or salad.
For light eaters: Half dozen entree sized salads, $10-$19; quiche, $16.
Wine list: Brief and wallet-easy, most bottles under $25. By the glass, $6-$10. By the bottle,13 reds and seven whites about evenly split between Italian and Washington bottles. By the glass, 18 wines favored reds over whites with grapes split between Washington and Italy. Generous pours, thoughtful suggestions from staff.
Staff: Owners Ken and Kim Grassi. Chef is Derek Bray. Pastry chef is Jackie Casey-Lake.

The sour cream lemon pie at Grassi's Ristorante.
The sour cream lemon pie at Grassi’s Ristorante.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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