On Jan. 18, 1996, Restaurant Bricco opened in West Hartford Center, and chef/owner Billy Grant celebrated the milestone 25th anniversary Monday night with several of his former chefs and employees.
By Ronni Newton
When Billy Grant opened Restaurant Bricco in 1996, it was “edgy.”
But consistency and commitment are what Grant said have been the keys to his success.
A quarter century after opening its doors, Bricco is the longest-standing restaurant in West Hartford Center, and he still loves what he’s doing and remains true to his motto: Eat and live well always.
When Grant mentioned consistency he didn’t just mean always serving good food; he also included the employees. Eight of the those who work in the kitchen today have been with him for more than 15 years.
“This is my baby,” Grant said of Restaurant Bricco. He could have focused on expanding his brand and opened 10 more restaurants, he said, “but that’s not for me.”
Prior to Bricco’s opening at 78 LaSalle Road, the space was briefly a restaurant named Alforno Ristorante. Before that, the space was home to the LaSalle Shop, a clothing store for children and young adults, fondly remembered by some longtime West Hartford residents as the place with the stalactites on the ceiling, and where they went to get their back-to-school clothes.
West Hartford Center has evolved since those days, and off the top of his head the only businesses Grant could think of other than Bricco that are still there are Toy Chest and Bruegger’s Bagels. There were a few other restaurants in the Center in the mid-1990s – Edelweiss (now Treva), Val’s (now Elbow Room), Back Porch Bistro (now Barcelona) – but not many.
After 25 years, Grant said he is grateful to his customers, and still living his dream.
“I had no idea it would last that long. I didn’t know the time would go by that fast either,” Grant said Monday night, as he enjoyed a celebratory dinner with several of his former chefs and others who had worked with him since the beginning and over the years.
The opening of Restaurant Bricco launched a trend that turned West Hartford into a foodie destination.
“Since 1996, Restaurant Bricco has had one simple agenda: simple, fresh and delicious food,” its website states. “Our Italian heritage demands it. Our patrons deserve it. Born from Mom’s Spaghetti Carbonara, Restaurant Bricco invokes the comfort of a Sunday family dinner and adds a modern Italian-American spirit. Inviting, vibrant, rustic yet upscale, Restaurant Bricco looks to the future with a nod to the past.”
Grant said he experimented a lot in the early years. “When we started [Bricco] was much more edgy. We changed the menu a lot until we settled in.”
Back in 1996, Grant said he wouldn’t have put meatballs and chicken parm on the menu, but some dishes have endured, among them the roasted chicken, mustard BBQ cedar planked salmon, penne alla vodka, and “My Mom’s” spaghetti carbonara.
“What I’m most proud of, other than lasting 25 years, is the charity this business has allowed me to do,” Grant said. “Without the customers, I would never have been able to do that.”
In 2019, Grant was chosen as the recipient of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce’s Noah Webster Award, an honor that is given each year to the “person, persons, or organization exemplifying an extraordinary commitment to the West Hartford community.” The award was presented to Grant not only in recognition of his contributions as a business owner, but also because of his many philanthropic endeavors which have supported well over a dozen charities, ranging from Foodshare, to the March of Dimes, to the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance, to Share Our Strength, the American Heart Association, Hartford Hospital, and more.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor expressed her congratulations Monday to Grant on Bricco’s 25th anniversary.
“We appreciate the great food and fabulous service – and outside of a pandemic a lively and fun atmosphere. Bricco has a very special place in my heart. My husband Michael and I have had so many wonderful dates each and every one of these 25 years. It is a long time family favorite with many meaningful celebrations. And this has been the place of special lunches and fun dinners with treasured friends,” Cantor said.
“The consistent high quality of delicious food has nourished, enriched and lifted us up. Billy has been there for our community – contributing to the community and supporting those in need. Thank you for the turkey drives and the many donations in support of the community. Billy is of the community and for the community. You are a gem. Thank you!” Cantor said.
Family and community are important to Grant – and in addition to his actual relatives who have been part of the business, those who have worked there have become family as well.
Before Grant partnered with two of his brothers, Mike and Tony, to open Bricco, he worked as a chef at Max Amore in Glastonbury and the original Max on Main in Hartford. “That’s where I met Julie, our server here tonight,” he said.
Among those joining Grant for the celebration – which likely would have been a much larger event if not for the COVID-19 pandemic – were Sean McNulty, his original general manager; Nick Mancini, part of Bricco’s original team and now chef at La Tavolo in Westport; KC Ward, now the owner of Flora in West Hartford and Rooster Company in Newington; Chris Wall, aka “Wally,” the first sous chef; Jon Gyles, who ran the kitchen from 2016-2019 and is now the general manager at Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury; former chef Corey Cannon, now at Shuttle Meadow Country Club; and Oscar Soriano, who started as a line cook in 2001 and is now sous chef.
Two former chefs weren’t able to make it to mark the occasion; one is now in Texas and the other is in El Salvador.
“I started with Billy before it opened,” Wall said. He thought it was a few weeks before, but Grant reminded him that it was just five days before the opening in 1996 that the team was finalized and started their journey together.
“The rest was history,” said Wall, now the chef at a residential care community. He said he grew up in the restaurant business, starting as a dishwasher when he was 12, came to Bricco from Cavey’s, and stayed as sous chef for seven years. He also helped open Grant’s.
“Billy puts his heart and soul into this,” said Wall. “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard and give so much of himself. … There’s such a network that has come through these doors.”
“This was the Mecca for me,” Gyles said. “I’ve always been really proud to have Bricco’s name behind me.”
“Half of my life has been here,” said Soriano, who left Restaurant Bricco a few times but stayed with the group, helping Grant open Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury as well as Grant’s which closed in 2019. “It’s been great inspiration.”
Ward was a teen when Grant first hired him on the spot to work at Bricco in 1997. In 2008, after he left college, Ward returned and jumped right in to do whatever was needed.
“I was a vegetarian and my first job was prepping soft shell crabs … with scissors,” Ward said. He met his wife at Bricco.
McNulty has known Grant since they were kids growing up in East Hartford. He’s a contractor now, and has worked in the liquor and wine industry, but spent three years as general manager when Bricco first opened. Their children have grown up together.
All three of Grant’s children were also at Bricco Monday night. Billy Grant IV, now a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, was less than a year old when his dad opened Bricco, and it was where his first birthday party was celebrated.
“As always, I thank my brothers and partners, Tony and Mike for helping my dream become reality. I think our father would be proud of how we have stuck together. To the rest of the family: my mother and my children, words can’t express how much I love you. The sacrifices you have made for me will never be forgotten. You have supported me always and made it all so worthwhile,” Grant said in a social media post Monday morning, marking the 25th anniversary.
“Finally, to all our guests and friends whom I have had the pleasure of cooking for … A HUGE THANK YOU for your patronage and loyalty. It has been an honor serving you. I have missed you through these difficult Covid times and cannot wait to see you all again. Amidst this global pandemic, I truly feel blessed and I look forward to our future,” he wrote.
He ended the post with his signature motto: “Eat and live well always.”
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