By Autumn Gates
“Sometimes I just pinch myself and say, ‘What has happened?’” exclaims Grappino co-owner Ingrid Aielli of the immense success she and her chef husband, Fabrizio, have achieved in the local restaurant scene.
Owners of three other exquisite Italian restaurants in Southwest Florida — Sea Salt, Barbatella and Dorona — this persistent husband-and-wife team has done it again with their newest restaurant, Grappino, which opened one year ago.
Each restaurant has its niche, and for Grappino, it’s the Italian brandy, grappa. This high-potency, after-dinner drink originated with Italian farmers who created homemade batches with leftover grape seeds, stems and skins.
Offering more than 100 varieties, Grappino is one of the largest grappa bars in the United States. Many of the restaurant’s signature cocktails include infused grappas for a punch of flavor.
“If someone is afraid to have a grappa, but secretly wants to try it, the apricot is sweet and a great option for newbies,” advises restaurant manager Shelly McKernan, who has developed a love for grappa.
While many guests come to sample the grappas, it’s the food that will keep them coming back. The menu includes many Italian comfort foods with some twists added by the expert executive chef.
Born and raised in Venice, Chef Fabrizio developed a passion for Italian cuisine as a young boy when he began cooking alongside his mother. As he grew, the heart that she put into her cooking inspired him to share his talents with others.
Chef Fabrizio now seeks to manifest the heart of Italy in both his recipes and his business operations. Providing unending support and fresh ideas, Ingrid acts as his partner and closest confidant.
“We’ve been married and working together for almost 30 years, so we see eye-to-eye, and hospitality has become our life,” says Ingrid.
After living and working in Venice, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, where they opened their first Italian restaurant, Goldoni. Little did they know they would later own four restaurants at one time! While each restaurant is distinctive, they all convey the same time-honored Italian values of love, togetherness and camaraderie, says Ingrid.
The staff aims to not only fill their customers’ bellies, but also their hearts. Warm hospitality stems from the harmonic partnership between Ingrid and Fabrizio, which they have passed on to their 300 Aielli Group team members.
As a result of this teamwork, business runs like clockwork. Guests can expect a premier experience complete with delightful Italian dishes, a unique selection of drinks, and a peaceful atmosphere. Grappino’s beautiful design is refreshingly clean and modern — crisp white walls, natural light and sustainably sourced, “live-edge” tables made from trees indigenous to Southwest Florida.
At the front on the house, the main dining room features vibrant, hand-blown, Italian-glass balloons that give off a fun, artistic flair. Around the corner, guests can enjoy a drink in the comfortable bar and lounge, where the impressive wall of grappas is displayed. There’s also a quiet patio for open-air dining.
Italian classics like bruschetta and calamari are popular starters for a multi-course dining experience. The menu offers 21 unique pizzas and over 150 pasta combinations! Guests are invited to create their own dish, choosing the type of pasta and the preparation, which includes everything from classic marinara to “mare” with shrimp, roasted tomato, mussels, calamari and clams. To give guests the opportunity to try several pastas, Grappino runs a special every Thursday from 4 p.m. to close, offering three sample-sized portions of pasta selections for just $16.
In Italian cuisine, pasta is often a “first plate.” Second plate menu options include salt-cured, free range chicken, risottos, seafood, veal chop, ribeye and more.
Grappino strives for excellence with its mouthwatering culinary creations, outstanding hospitality and inviting decor. Rooted in the strong partnership of Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli, the restaurant has grown into a truly unique eatery designed for sharing amazing food, good company, and grappa, of course!
Eggplant Tower: This crispy eggplant tower is every bit as tasty as it is aesthetically pleasing. The starter plate features thin slices of battered and fried eggplant in a perfect stack with basil between each layer. At the base of this crunchy bite is a complementary Greek yogurt sauce with a touch of spicy honey.
Alta Marea: Blending two Italian specialties, fresh seafood and bruschetta, the Alta Marea is light but so satisfying! This loaded appetizer is comprised of grilled bread topped with crab, shrimp, lobster and tomato. The delightful dish is drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and garnished with basil leaves.
Roman-Style Pizza: Grappino’s Roman-style pizza is lighter and easier for digestion than the average pie. Its crust is an anomaly – crispy on the outside, yet soft and fluffy on the inside. A large selection of rossa (tomato sauce) and bianca (sans sauce) pizzas make this menu item a customer favorite. Our favorite was the Zucca, a truly unique pizza featuring roasted butternut squash, ricotta cheese, fried sage and drizzles of honey.
Pesto Genovese Tortelini: While this tortellini pasta dish may look simplistic, its flavor profile is certainly not. The “navel-shaped” pasta is stuffed with a blend of four cheeses, tossed in a scrumptiously creamy, garlic-pesto sauce, and sprinkled with pine nuts and flakes of basil. Try the tortellini (or any other pasta) prepared a dozen other ways, including bolognese (with beef, pork and mushrooms) or Maialina Bianca (with sausage, leeks and mascarpone cheese).
Lemoncello Cake: This moist treat features layers of vanilla cake and lemon crème garnished with fresh raspberries. The eye-catching dessert is mellow, yet satisfying, and can be paired with a glass of grappa for an exquisite after-dinner experience.
Apricot-Infused Grappa: This robust form of Italian brandy is a must-try at Grappino, which has 10 house-infused grappas and 100 varieties of grappa in total. The apricot-infused grappa is pungent without being overpowering. Perfect for novice grappa drinkers, this version is balanced with a hint of sweetness from the apricots. More adventurous drinkers should try the house-made, hazelnut-infused grappa.