When Rick Gencarelli, chef and owner of Portland’s famed sandwich shop Lardo (known for its play-on-words motto: Bringing Fatback 7 Days a Week) opened his fresh pasta joint, Grassa, downtown Portland he wasn’t sure how it would be received. He was going for a high quality menu (at moderate prices) in a space where families could come en masse or couples could enjoy on a date.
“It seemed to me there were family style Italian restaurants where the kids are welcome but one might sacrifice quality, and opposite that, high-end Italian restaurants where the kids don’t quite fit in, the prices are high, and the portions small,” Rick states. “I was going for something in between with Grassa. Parents can bring the kids and enjoy fresh handcrafted pasta and authentic Italian food, from the simple and rustic, Cacio e Pepe with truffle butter to our Rigatoni with Sunday Pork Ragu.”
Rick’s question of his reception downtown and the public’s response to the Grassa concept was answered quickly. Stated shortly, Grassa is a success. So much so, that after only three short years he will be opening a new location projected on April 1, 2016. The new Grassa will be located on NW 23rd & Quimby and will occupy a space that was formerly filled by Pastini, an Italian restaurant that will be closing this particular location.
What else can you expect while dining at Grassa? Why, the heavily accented beat of James Gang, Jethro Tull, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. The tunes hail from an extensive music collection of vinyl records and eight-tracks left to Rick when his brother, Frank passed away.
“At only 13 years of age, when my brother passed away from cancer, I was very impressionable. He left me a huge collection of eight-tracks and vinyls, and music became a big part of my life. Music is my other obsession in life.” Rick states with a smile. “Music and food.”
“Food was always a huge part of growing up,” Rick continues. “It was the center of our lives. Once a week Sunday dinner was a big event. A lot of friends would come by to see the family. It was a great social event with great food. Still, I had no interest in cooking as a kid. Once in awhile, I helped out my mom in the kitchen, sometimes helping her make her meatballs, but mostly I just loved to eat them.”
Rick was born (along with his twin sister) into an Italian American family in Yonkers, New York. His Dad originates from Calabria and his mother from Naples.
“We moved from Yonkers to Greenwich, Connecticut when I was 14 for a better way a life. I may have gone in a wrong direction had we stayed in Yonkers. I didn’t do well in school, but my twin sister on the other hand was an academic.”
The turning point for Rick was when he was 15 years old and got a job as a busboy in Greenwich at a Chinese restaurant called, Lotus East. “I was the only “white” person there and I loved the action and the energy in the place. I knew immediately that this was somewhere I liked to be. Johnny Chang and his brother, Carl owned the place. Johnny ran the front of the house and Carl ran the back. They used to bus Chinese guys in from Queens, NY to work. It would get so busy that the guys would have to sleep above the restaurant during the weekends.”
After working at Lotus East, Rick waited tables at several restaurants including a Block Island Resort off of Rhode Island. He then moved to Boston and worked for a corporate caterer running the cafeteria for the John F. Kennedy Law School at Harvard and Bain & Company.
“While I was living in Boston I found a restaurant called, Olives,” recalls Rick. “It was two blocks from my apartment. This was truly the first time I had eaten anything that really blew me away. Olives was owned by Todd English and he had wood-fired ovens cranking out his version of Italian food. The lines were out the door, and this was before anybody really knew what risotto or polenta was. It changed my life. I credit Todd for my venture into culinary school. I headed back to New York and enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America.”
Rick ended up working for Todd upon graduating from culinary school and from that point forward Rick’s career path garnered a momentum (from San Francisco and New York’s Upper East Side, to Vermont, and currently Portland) that is still going strong today.
After working for four years at Shelburne Farms, a sustainable working farm in Vermont which boasts a farm to table restaurant that acquires 75% of its food grown and produced locally, Rick felt he had hit a ceiling. He worked as head chef, co-authored a cookbook and was now ready for a change.
“We came to Portland five years ago totally cold,” Rick remembers. “And everyone was so welcoming. We felt like we belonged here and like we fit in. My initial feeling of Portland was that it had a really cool food scene and also a really good way of life. It felt like a place full of opportunities and possibilities. Portland was just starting to ramp up. It was super hot but hadn’t exploded like it has now.”
One might say these were the perfect conditions for the launching of a food cart that would serve sandwiches with an Italian bent. Enter Lardo, now three brick and mortar locations strong.
When asked whom Rick would cook with if he could cook with anyone he states, “Marcella (Hazan) or Lidia (Bastianich). To me they both represent pure Italian cooking without pretense.” Although when it comes to his favorite recipe to prepare he quickly states, “My mom’s Sunday pork ragu. Every time I eat it, it brings me right back to my mom’s house. My mom made the best pork ragu. It had all the fat incorporated in it and the meat would just melt away. It would be on the stove in the morning when I’d get up and would cook all day.”
“I also love it when my cooking resonates with my customers. When it brings them back to a special part of their childhood or someone they knew.” And, Rick’s eateries seem to be doing just that.