It all began with a fire.
Back in the 18th century, before planting a new crop of grain, wealthy landowners in Puglia, the region on the southern heel of Italy’s boot, would burn remaining shrubs from the previous year’s crops to fertilize the soil and control weeds. According to pasta-making lore, they would then let poor villagers harvest the charred, smoky and unwanted grains that had not been completely consumed by flames. (The wealthy landowners of feudal Italy were not known for their generosity.) The peasants would grind these grains into flour for bread and pasta. Unbeknownst to the landowners, the bread and pasta made with this grain had a rich, nutty, smoky and dark taste. Grano arso, which translates to “burnt grain,” was born.
Many decades later, and more than 4,000 miles and an ocean away from Puglia, this burnt peasant grain of Italy has inspired the name of Grano Arso in the quintessential New England river village of Chester. Opened in November by husband-and-wife team Joel and Lani Gargano, the restaurant specializes in house-made and milled pastas using rare grains sourced from Connecticut, New England and beyond. These grains are crafted into rich, unique pasta styles including the grano arso variety that gave inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
During our visit we tasted this incredible style of pasta in the form of the rye orecchiette. The orecchiette, cap-shaped pasta meaning “little ears,” is made with rye from Still River Farm in Coventry that is toasted in house. The wheat-colored pasta is topped with pork sausage, escarole from Wellstone Farm in Higganum and a scoop of mascarpone. The pasta has that signature, rich flavor of grano arso toasted caramel combined with the gritty, earthy character of the rye. Another impressive pasta dish is the rigatoni Bolognese, made with beef from Blue Slope Farm in North Franklin.
The restaurant’s relationship with grain extends beyond pasta and includes the delicious bread served to customers as they arrive, and a memorable, stone-milled polenta appetizer.
Joel Gargano, who is the head chef, learned to bake at his parents’ Branford bakery, Cheri’s Bakery, and went on to graduate from Johnson & Wales’ culinary program. He honed his cooking chops at restaurants such as Providence’s Chez Pascal and by working for Tyler Anderson at Millwright’s in Simsbury and Jonathan Benno at Lincoln Ristorante in New York. It was at Lincoln that Gargano learned how beautiful fresh pasta can be, and the care that goes into making it.
“There’s two camps on this idea of pasta: there’s fresh and there’s dry,” Gargano says. “Depending on where you go in Italy, you’re going to get a fresh product or a dried product. None is better or worse, it’s just about what people do. For us, we wanted to have a lot of control over the products that we make. Meaning, if I felt inspired one day to include rye in my pasta, it might take me a very long time to find someone who makes rye pasta, right?”
He adds, “Grain is such an underutilized local ingredient. Growing a grain crop, there’s not a lot of money to be made in that. There’s not a lot of farmers that do it. So I’m really happy for the ones that do and I try my best to support them.”
While pasta is the heart and soul of the restaurant, there is plenty more to recommend. With ingredients sourced from local farms and waters, there are intriguing options even for those destined for gluten-free existences. An example during our visit was the stracciatella, creamy mozzarella over local radishes.
The restaurant occupies a former bank built in the 1800s. Lani, a nurse by training who got into the restaurant business after marrying Joel, oversees a front of house that has an upscale vibe with an open and airy dining room and small bar area that seats 50. There is also an outdoor patio.
Lani says that, like nursing, owning a restaurant is all about hospitality.
“You still take care of people and you still try to make their lives better in some sort of way,” she says. “I just fell in love with the industry and being able to make people happy with our food and service.”
The bar features wine, beer and a wide range of cocktails that stand out for their quality in an increasingly competitive cocktail market. Lani’s Martini and the Lower Manhattan were both creative takes on classic drinks.
Desserts such as panna cotta, budino and cappuccino gelato were all worthy caps to the meal. However, what stood out most were the pastas — pasta made with passion and care and from local and rare grains, steeped but not bound in the traditions of Italy, bursting with new and ancient flavors. That’s tough to top at any restaurant.