It’s a Friday night and I am waiting to check-in at the host stand at the fabled La Grotta Buckhead. A handsome, well-dressed couple who arrived just before me are speaking with the maître d.
“Are we celebrating tonight?” the host asks the couple.
“Yes!” the man beams. It’s our forty-ninth wedding anniversary.”
Surely I misheard what he said. Did he say forty-ninth?
“Excuse me, sir,” I interrupt the gentleman incredulously. “I thought I heard you tell the maître d that tonight is your 49th wedding anniversary?”
“It is,” he says. “We celebrate all our anniversaries at La Grotta.”
If that is not a 5-star testament to the special aura of this old school Atlanta Eats Hidden Gem, I don’t know what is.
La Grotta Buckhead opened its doors in 1978, a time when the President of the United States was a peanut farmer from Plains, Atlanta had an NHL team (the Flames, not the Thrashers) and spaghetti with meatballs and parmesan cheese from a Kraft cylinder was about all you could expect from an Italian restaurant.
Sergio Favalli, a native Italian who had worked in the downtown Atlanta restaurant scene in the 1960’s and ‘70’s just couldn’t stomach the dearth of authentic Italian cuisine any longer and took over the basement space of a 1950’s apartment building on Peachtree Road in Buckhead just north or Lindbergh. The rest, as they say, is history—and quite a history it’s been.
Now, Favalli’s son, Christian, who started working in the space as a 6-year-old, runs La Grotta alongside his father’s original partner from 38 years ago, Executive Chef, Antonio Abizanda.
The restaurant, despite its relative under-the-radar status, constantly maintains a full dining room, many of whom have been so many times that they feel obliged to greet the chef, the owner and even some of the servers with hugs. It’s just that kind of place.
Turn in off of Peachtree Road into the modest entrance, valet your car and enter through the, shall we say, “delightfully dated” lobby of the Peachtree House condominiums (the apartments converted to condos in the 1980’s). Then take the elevator to the basement and navigate the tunnel-like corridor to host stand and check in. At this point do not be alarmed if you skeptically wonder, “Am I in the right place” or if a 5-star dining establishment could possibly lay ahead. Admittedly, it’s one of the more unusual processions to a dining room in the city.
But once you enter the dining room, a low-ceilinged, elegant and intimate space, an old school charm envelopes you and you know you are in for something special.
The wait staff are legendary; 28-year veteran Juliano Gomez holds senior rank among a cadre of 20+ year maestros who efficiently glide around the room whilst dispensing menu wisdom and sage humor.
Chef Abizanda’s cooking has not missed a step in 38 years. On a recent night I feasted on a rich, creamy risotto with shaved black truffles, an ethereally light ahi tuna carpaccio and an exquisite grilled veal chop with red wine jus that was so pitch perfect, it was like stepping into a culinary teleportation machine back to an unforgettable meal I had at a Tuscan winery many years ago. For dessert, a tiramisu that would make mamma mia cry.
Quite simply, this is a place that incubates magic and whether it’s a milestone occasion or just a means to escape from the daily noise of our wicked city, it’s a physical and spiritual refuge; a time capsule of simplicity and authenticity.
As I savored every last morsel of my dinner, I couldn’t help but voyeuristically gaze across the dining room to the couple, enjoying the food and wine, reflecting on the moments of their 49 years together. Without a doubt they will be back this exact night next year to for their 50th. And so will I.
For more Atlanta Eats Hidden Gems, check out a full list here. And be sure to watch Atlanta Eats every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on Peachtree TV for more of your favorite Atlanta restaurants!