+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Karen Davies
Chef and restauranteur Anthony Grasso can’t recall a pivotal moment that sparked his interest in food. Growing up in an Italian household, “I don’t remember a time when the kitchen wasn’t the first place you went when you came home,” he says. The eldest son of older parents, Grasso’s upbringing was more old school, with an expectation of involvement, from working on outside projects to interior upkeep—including assisting with meals.
Grasso got hooked on the restaurant business before cooking. At age 13, he started bussing tables at a little neighborhood trattoria in Silver Spring before moving to another restaurant with later hours and more shifts. Grasso was also an athlete, and when he broke his arm playing football and couldn’t bus tables, he caught a different type of break—the manager decided he could mix drinks with one arm. His next move was back to the trattoria, but as kitchen manager, his high school Spanish giving him an advantage over others in communicating with the El Salvadorian kitchen staff. “I didn’t know about food except cooking at home, but it turned out I knew more than I thought I did.”
College came, with summers spent in Ocean City, working such jobs as short-order cook on the boardwalk, making cheesesteaks and burgers along with a fellow athlete friend. “We were responsible young men, not into partying, and the owners recognized that, cutting a deal to stay open later to capture late-night revenues—50% of the till. That was my first shot at running a restaurant,” says Grasso. The gig worked out, but he met other people banking more money working as bar backs and bussers at larger places. With a summer savings goal to support his next year of college, he started moving into better-paying positions before landing at Tutti Gusti, a fine-dining restaurant.
He graduated from college but was unsure what to do next, so he extended his summer season job to year’s end. When Tutti Gusti was sold, he returned to the trattoria as full-time manager, applying all he’d learned to reinvigorate the store’s systems and services.
Then a call came in from Brian Shaw, the chef from Tutti Gusti. The new owners wanted Shaw, Grasso, and some of Grasso’s other former coworkers. Grasso had appreciated the chef’s creating a teaching environment where he’d learned a lot via observation and assistance, so he returned, working there throughout law school.
Hence his culinary education began in earnest. He was told by Shaw—“still probably the most talented chef I know”—that he’d also be learning at home. He received books and assignments, and had to give oral reports and demonstrate techniques daily.
A book titled On Food and Cooking opened Grasso’s eyes to seeing food in a different light. “It was a tough read, very technical writing, but it made me realize that everything in cooking could be broken down to the molecular, and to look at food like an alchemist and not an artist—then there’s never any guesswork,” he says.
For example, all pastries have basically the same six ingredients, but the order you put them in and techniques you apply can result in thousands of different pastries. Such knowledge gave Grasso confidence with food, “It was like someone gave me the Rosetta Stone. After that, it was fast forward and head first.” They cooked old school, making pastas and breads, butchering whole fish, using local farms long before it became popular over using freezer-to-fryer products.
“Those guys never stopped learning—that’s how I got formed. The fun was to never stop learning, achieving, experiencing, creating. I did that all through law school. I had two master professors all to myself and no classmates.”
After finishing law school, Grasso wasn’t sure being a lawyer was for him. He was drawn into cooking and the restaurant world full-time. The owner sold him the restaurant, and suddenly he was a 27-year-old restaurateur, running the place with his brother for the next five years. When the economy tanked, he chose not to renew the lease and became a competitor’s executive chef, taking a break from the restaurant business. Chef Lisa DiFebo helped give him perspective on holding himself accountable and reignited his drive for the continued pursuit of perfection. “I think we lose that motivation and gusto on a day-to-day basis—it fades or gets ground out of you. [DiFebo] showed if you want to be great, you have to be motivated, every day.”
As part-owner of Dolce Vita in Fairfax, Virginia, Grasso (who commutes from his home in the Annapolis area) continues the fresh tradition, baking breads, making pasta, even harvesting from Dolce Vita’s own garden. Grasso’s philosophy is if he can satisfy himself first in terms of quality and service, then his customers will also be satisfied. Both he and business partner, Cyrus Coleman, work to instill this in their staff. Zagat ratings and local magazine write-ups reflect their commitment, and Open Table’s diner-driven ratings have garnered awards, including Top 10 in Fairfax Restaurants, Diner’s Choice Award for Italian in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. The restaurant also earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Tradition, commitment, and a success philosophy prove to be a perfect blend for the modern age. █