Middletown’s Gracie’s: delicious and unique


Gracie’s occasional steak entrée special

By Paula Johnson

 

The dictionary defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” Amy Vitori defined faith by purchasing the old JC Penney building in Middletown and putting a restaurant in it (also a children’s play place, hair salon, and yoga studio), confident that if you build it, they will come. And they are coming. (In my case, several times already). The restaurant in question is Gracie’s on Central Avenue in the heart of Middletown’s business district. Named for Vitori’s grandmother, the restaurant is run with business partner Max Comisar, a fourth generation hospitality professional, and chef Nick Lithicum.

Triple Threat

Who is Amy Vitori, and what led her to the leap of faith with Gracie’s? Her story of leaving Middletown to pursue a career as a Wall Street investment banker (as well as work in Hollywood) is outlined in a short film produced by Starbuck’s, as part of their series Upstanders, which focuses on people saving their communities. Nearly a decade ago, Forbes Magazine identified Middletown among America’s 10 fastest dying cities. In the past year or so, Triple Moon Coffee, West Central Wine Bar, and now Gracie’s are giving Middletown a—dare I say—hip vibe that feels like it’s a palace where something’s really happening.

That’s a lot of background to get through before talking about the restaurant itself, and its food, but it speaks to why Gracie’s is extraordinary in many ways. These three people, Vitori, Comisar, and Lithicum, are experienced in their respective fields, and it shows in everything from the space’s sleek interior design and quality of materials used, to the competent and attentive service, and to the execution of what comes out of the kitchen. PIP (Palate In Progress) and I, along with some friends, dropped in early on a Saturday evening to find the place already beginning to fill. We didn›t have a reservation (I recommend one), but they managed to accommodate us in a booth along the wall towards the back of the narrow space opposite a large bank of windows looking out at the adjacent plaza. The ceilings are high with exposedductwork, the floors done in shiny mosaic tile. With a lot of hard surfaces I was worried about the noise level, but hanging fabric panels and the booths’ upholstery most likely contributed to making the audible level lively but not problematic.

The one page menu at Gracie’s isn’t large, focusing on what they call “Big City Comfort Food,” five appetizers, three pastas, four “Stove” entrees, and a burger. There is one rotating nightly special including offerings like Monday meatloaf and Wednesday Fried Chicken. (Tuesday is Pork Shank, which I can’t wait to try). Options are not legion, but that’s a plus. What’s there is well-thought-out and interestingly prepared with enough choices to satisfy mostly everyone.

Shout Out To Sprouts

We began with three of the five appetizers, a small version of The Board ($14.00), a charcuterie plate (large available for $26.00), Charred Brussels Sprouts ($8.00), and Pork Belly Shrimp and Grits ($12.00). The house made pickle and onion condiment on the Board was a good companion to the sliced meat stacks and tasty cheeses, but we all fell in crazy love with the Brussels sprouts. Heaped in a cast iron casserole and roasted to a perfect char, they were amply studded with pine nuts and large cubes of bacony goodness, and festooned with ribbons of creamy sauce. PIP, no fan of the sprout, was even won over. Our love extended to the oh-so-deliciously creamy mound of grits, topped with large, perfectly sautéed shrimp and lots of crisp, unctuously fatty pork belly. Tangy sauce ringed the plate, with a tangle of slightly bitter and herbaceous micro greens to cut through the dish’s sweet richness. Our quartet was heard to utter things like, “Wow-this is so good!” and “Here, you’ve gotta taste this.” I too was impressed with everything so far, but holding my breath…

Waiting to Exhale

I did exhale after the entrees, and allowed myself to join in the exclamatory declarations on behalf of the food. We sampled the Scallops ($28.00)—perfectly cooked with a light balsamic glaze, Seared Salmon ($19.00), and the Saturday special Steak Feature, that night a nice beefy sliced Hanger Steak ($26.00). On the strength of what we previously sampled we also added The Burger ($14.00), Caesar Salad ($7.00, $3.00 additional for white anchovies), and Sausage Broccolini Rigatoni ($18.00). The Burger toppings were terrific—crispy onion straws, bacon jam, Cambozola cheese, and arugula, and it too was cooked exactly as ordered. Yes, I know there were only four of us with all that food. We also had three excellent desserts that night, a Pumpkin Tart, a silky, highly-caffeinated Espresso Pot de Creme, and a perfect fall Apple Crisp with ice cream.

The only dish I took some issue with was the Rigatoni. I was thrilled to hear the pasta is made in house, and went with the server’s recommendation over the Seared Gnocchi or the Braised Short Rib Mac. The sausage was so very mild it could have used an additional spice note to ramp it up, but the main fault was in the overcooked broccolini, which lost its color and texture. In light of the rest of the meal, I’m willing to assume this was an aberration.

The Lutherans have a saying “By Grace, through Faith for Works.” In this case, I’d say it’s kind of like “By Gracie’s, through Faith, it’s Working.” Kudos to Amy Vitori and team for your efforts, you built it and they are coming.

Gracie’s is located at 1131 Central Ave in Middletown. For more information please visit Graciesmiddletown.com or call 513.915.7476

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Megan Garrison grew up in the small town of Lampasas, Texas, spending her time immersed in Ernest Hemingway novels and dreaming of being a journalist one day. Now she attends the University of Dayton and is hard at work studying to be a war-time correspondent. Though she is very goal oriented and works hard to achieve her dreams she also loves to have a little fun. She DJs her own radio show on Flyer Radio and makes it a point to attend great movies and local concerts. But her greatest love will always be books.

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