The location couldn't be more perfectly suited to the concept. "Quick-and-casual" is the booming restaurant genre that is several steps above burger and taco drive-thrus. The shopping mecca of Mason-Montgomery and Fields-Ertel roads exemplifies the formulaic, overscheduled and hurried, instant-gratification lifestyle that many of us have bought into, chain-store squared.
The latest to join the many "concept" restaurants such as Olive Garden, Chipotle, Carraba's and Copeland's of New Orleans along this congested strip is Gratzi Funky Italian. Michael Forgus, the owner of Gratzi and former owner of several smaller, urban Cincinnati restaurants — all bearing his nickname, "Funky" — describes his restaurant as "handmade meals in a restaurant setting at low prices for people on the run."
Indeed, the quick-and-casual concept focuses on a niche that caters to a more discriminating but time-conscious clientele: The food comes quickly but doesn't seem like fast food. The quick casual category is further distinguished from fast-food outlets by fresher ingredients, larger portions and higher prices.
The model for Gratzi Funky Italian is a successful single-owner chain in Seattle called Pallino Pastaria: A Starbucks-does-pasta (the owner, Harry Roberts is a former Starbucks executive) where one orders from the counter and food is delivered to your table. While Gratzi has adopted some of Pallino's style — the counter with menu board and plated displays of nearly every menu item — Michael Forgus has included the option of traditional full-table service, while partner/chef Pete Zimmerman (formerly of The Brickyard in O'Bryonville) offers some sauces apparently tastier than Pallino's. (I've never eaten there myself, but nearly every review I researched referred to Pallino's sauces as "bland.")
I have to admit I didn't want to like Gratzi. First of all, without reservation, I have to be offered compensation to negotiate the gridlock and box-store maze of Fields-Ertel Road.
Secondly, the building and interior shouts Perkins with an Italian makeover. Third, I usually like my marinara made by a plump Italian who stirs with purport and patience. Fourth: although I am funky, I am neither quick nor casual.
With a few exceptions, I liked Gratzi Funky Italian and so did the guests I invited, even the Italian "ringer" who was prepared to run crying to mamma.
Although we were confused by the conceptual program when we entered and not terribly enlightened by the robotic script from the young hostess, Forgus pleasantly intercepted and simply stated that we could choose full-service instead of counter-service, smartly selling us a bottle of wine when he saw that we were of the slower variety of customer.
Full-service was still relatively quick, but we would have liked a server who knew the menu. She had no items to recommend, and she left the floor twice to answer two simple questions about ingredients. She also asked us several times to repeat what we had ordered. She was sincere and amiable, but I don't understand why a restaurant manager would put a server/salesperson on the floor who doesn't know the food.
None of the food is life-changing, but most dishes are quick, hot and satisfying, with a couple of standouts. We had to hunt for the roasted vegetables on the Roasted Vegetable Salad ($5.95), but our main course pastas were cooked al dente, and the sauces were obviously hand-made.
Just as vanilla is the litmus test flavor for ice creams, you better get your marinara sauce right in an Italian restaurant. You can taste the Italian temper in Gratzi's marinara sauce, an original recipe of the chef's Sicilian grandfather. It's very good. But the White Clam Sauce is one I'd like to meet up with again — a sweet and smoky, earthy brown sauce made with littleneck clams farmed in the Adriatic Sea. My Italian guest was jealous that his own clam sauce was not nearly as good.
While Italian desserts are my favorite, unfortunately the couple we tried ranged from ho-hum to overdone.
Value is fabulous at Gratzi, $3.25-$7.95 for menu items, topped out by the evening feature at $13.
Would I go back to Gratzi Funky Italian? Since the concept is dying to be replicated, my guess is that Michael Forgus is getting ready to do just that. While not a destination restaurant, if he builds one closer to the city (the concept would be a good match for a university area), I would go back for the clam sauce alone and savor it — s-l-o-w-l-y. ©
Gratzi Funky Italian
Go: 9936 Waterstone, Symmes Twp.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Payment: Major Credit Cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of vegetarian options and several vegan as well.