During the busy weekday lunch rush at Grazie Grazie, Casey Patten could be confused for a busboy. The founder of the Philadelphia-style sandwich shop — and former owner of the Taylor Gourmet hoagie chain — often posts up near the pick-up line, handing off sandwiches to takeout customers and wiping down tables for the next wave of hungry hoagie eaters.
Patten’s experience with his first sandwich shop was an up-and-down affair that peaked with the opening of nearly 20 locations in two cities before plummeting with controversy and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Now that Patten has a second chance to make sandwiches, he’s appreciating it with all of his senses.
“It’s refreshing to be able to walk in here and hear the noise of the gears in the meat grinder, or smell bread in the oven,” Patten says. “Because the last year of my life has been a rollercoaster. I’ve been through extreme highs and lows, but at the end of the day, I can honestly say it feels good to be back here doing what I love with the people I love most.”
The rollercoaster ride bottomed out with the abrupt closure Taylor Gourmet not long after Patten drew criticism for participating in a small business roundtable meeting with President Donald Trump in January 2017. At the time, Patten said he was “apolitical” and wanted to advocate for a “family” of employees that included many immigrants.
Sales took a nosedive and never recovered. Then, a private equity firm pulled out millions in investments, which pushed Patten to the brink on September 23, 2018, when Taylor Gourmet closed. The brand has since been revived under new ownership. While that might seem like salt in Patten’s wounds, he says it’s been a blessing in disguise. He’s happy old employees have jobs again. He says the closure allowed him to hit an internal reset button.
“What hit me then was a question: If I had the opportunity to reopen only one store, what would I do differently and why? The answer — and the one I was searching for all along — was to have more fun, put passion before paycheck,” he says.
That opportunity arrived while Patten was on a trip to Italy with his wife last Christmas. Monty Hoffman, CEO of PN Hoffman and co-developer of the Wharf on the Southwest Waterfront, called to ask if Patten would consider reopening a restaurant in the vacant Taylor Gourmet space there.
“I have to credit Monty, because when no one really cared about me, he did,” Patten says. “In my life, there have always been people and places which made all the difference, and now I have a place to celebrate that fact.”
Reinvigorated, Patten set out to craft a proprietary seeded roll for Grazie Grazie. He spent six months working with the crew at Gold Crust Baking Company in Landover, Maryland, to develop a roll that was golden brown on the outside but still light and chewy inside.
“I wanted to reengineer a loaf strong enough to hold up to the ingredients but light enough, so it didn’t fill you up,” he says.
Then, he spent time putting together a menu that grew out of the Taylor Gourmet traditions while integrating some of his eating experience in Italy. In a half-dozen sandwiches, Patten explains how Grazie Grazie is a reflection of both the people and places that have given him a lift as a restaurateur on the comeback trail:
One of Grazie Grazie’s top-selling hoagies draws inspiration from Mimmo Rotella, a Warhol-esque Italian collage artist that Patten loves. That art is reflected in the graffiti that adorns the restaurant’s walls, created by D.C.’s No Kings Collective. A visit to a Rotella exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, combined with lunch afterwards at a Roman pizza shop, made for one of Patten’s most memorable experiences of Italy.
“I’m rolling around Campo De Fiori, and I pop in and grab a piece of bread with reduced tomato puree with a bit of basil and pecorino,” he says. “It tasted so bright and sweet, yet it was so simple to make but also somehow very complex.”
That eventually led him to create a sandwich stuffed with a three-meat combo: hot capicola, peppered ham, and prosciutto. It’s dressed with spicy aioli, grated pecorino Romano, and sweet oven-dried Roma tomatoes, then topped with red onion, fresh basil, arugula, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and house seasoning.
This sandwich is Patten’s favorite sandwich. Equal parts salty, sweet, and creamy, it comes with a breaded or grilled chicken cutlet, prosciutto, and a tangy lemon ricotta spread. There’s also spicy Calabrian chile honey, grated pecorino Romano, fresh basil, arugula, and extra virgin olive oil. “When you’re in Italy, you always want to eat and linger,” Patten says. “Ultimately it was that experience and vibe, and again another pizza — with speck, honey, and fresh mozzarella — that translated into an experience I truly enjoyed with my wife.”
Patten’s Italian heritage informs his cooking too, and no person had a bigger influence on him in that area than his grandmother, Nancy Russoniello. One of his earliest cooking memories was forming meatballs with her in preparation for Sunday feasts in New Jersey. “I remember watching her make those meatballs and would watch them sit warming on the stove all day long,” Patten says. The nonna, or the “grandmother,” is a meatball sub that riffs off a family recipe using a blend of ground pork shank and Italian sausage.
The Philly Special
No dish is more synonymous with Philadelphia than the cheesesteak. Patten pays homage to the City of Brotherly Love with an entire section of the menu dedicated to the cheesesteak. Customers can build their own or select from one of three options — traditional, spicy, or vegetarian. Or they can order grilled steak atop cheese fries. But the Philly Special — which shares a name with a famous trick play the Eagles used to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl — is similar to the ones found on South Street, but is fancier thanks to the inclusion of grass-fed beef and Cooper brand sharp provolone.
While the cheesesteak may be better known, Patten says Philly natives like himself are more likely to point visitors towards a roast pork sandwich shop, like John’s, DiNic’s, Nick’s, or Tony Luke’s. Patten’s version is named after his grandparents, Nancy and Mike.
“Maybe it’s the unofficial sandwich of Philly,” he says, “but many would argue that tourists eat cheesesteaks, and locals eat this.”
It’s a simple hoagie loaded with roasted pork, aged Parmesan, and a peppery broccoli rabe. The key to this sandwich is the pork jus that soaks the bread and partially melts the cheese.
“For me, this is the taste of home, and I don’t think you’ll easily find another one of these around. Maybe if you take a trip up I-95,” Patten says. “That’s why this restaurant, Grazie Grazie, has been a bit therapeutic. This is my chance to finally say thank you to all the people who helped get me to where I am now.”
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