Now headquarters for New Directions Housing Corp., this was once the entrance to the opulent Casa Grisanti at Liberty and Wenzel streets. (Clicik to enlarge.)

I just glanced at the menu for tonight’s El Bulli “dinner and a movie” at Seviche, and 12 hours ahead of time, I’m already salivating.

This is the lineup chef-owner Anthony Lamas posted on his Facebook page:

  • nuevo mojito
  • nitro caipirinha
  • gazpacho in textures
  • orange, olive, ice
  • oyster, yuzu air, seaweed
  • summer water, evo, herb
  • albacore, smoke, heat
  • fungi, compressed, juice
  • beef, potato marrow, fried yolk
  • sweet potato, pine nut, manchego espuma
  • avocado, chocolate, bourbon

As a former chef, I can’t imagine I or any other chef in town in the 1980s had the skills required to do such a meal, or the notion that those ingredients would blend favorably.

The Casa Grisanti menu from the 1970s

To be fair, such cuisine just hadn’t evolved yet, or at least it hadn’t appeared on America’s shores. So I’m not knocking the chefs of that day; many of them have since mastered those techniques.

But when you look at Louisville’s best food back then, many would point to Casa Grisanti as the standard. Comparing what was served then to what’s become the standard now is amusing.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’ll say what a lot of people won’t: Casa Grisanti was great because of its service, not its food.

Sure, it did soufflés to order, but no dish leaving that kitchen was anywhere remotely as well prepared as what comes from the line today at Corbett’s, Proof, Decca, Mayan Café, Lilly’s … I could list at least 30 better kitchens.

Oh, the chefs there were highly talented culinary school grads and products of cosmopolitan cities, guys and gals who could flat-out cook. Dominic Serratore, Casa’s executive chef for many years, is still one of the most knowledgeable chefs in Louisville (he’s been chef and co-owner of Ditto’s Grill since 1990), but even he was cooking far below his abilities then.

Part of why the food wasn’t that great centered on minimal demand of premium ingredients and even less insistence on scratch preparation. If corners could be cut, they were. For instance:

More times than not, stocks (the basis for all soups and sauces) were made from concentrated, salty bases, not roasted bones and vegetables and water. In the early years some were done correctly, but Casa (and its sister restaurants, Mama Grisanti and Sixth Avenue) operated with relatively small, undertrained and stressed-out staffs that struggled to produce such basics, so corners were cut.

Sauces that required lemon juice got their zip from bottled concentrates and lots of canned shallots, and wine reductions came from truly nasty wine.

Beef and chicken products were fine, but fish wasn’t even remotely fresh as we understand it today (and to Casa’s defense, it was the best available then).

Fresh pasta? Never. Not even in a four-star Italian restaurant.

Vinegars and oils used for dressings. Cheap stuff.

No respectable chef in town today would use half the stuff we did (I cooked briefly at Casa, seven years at Sixth Avenue), and yet, in terms of Louisville restaurant food, Casa was “the stuff.”

And I say the credit for that goes mostly to its service staff.

If you don’t recall that great restaurant, here’s a snapshot: It was formal. Every table had a padded top, and its two tablecloths and napkins were ironed wrinkle free. Each also had fresh flowers and was lit by candle.

The dining room had one long wall made of brass hammered to a mirror finish: gorgeous and glowing under low light.

If male customers arrived without jackets, the restaurant forbid their entry to the main dining room.

Service: Nearly every hot item was half cooked in the kitchen and then sent out in pans — on trays carried overhead — to be finished over flaming réchaud at each and every table by a tuxedoed server. It was thrilling to watch every china plate heated over a blue flame and presented with your sizzling meal.

Every Caesar salad was prepared from scratch (with coddled egg, the right way) tableside, and every order of fettuccini Alfredo saw heavy cream heated to boiling, Parmesan cheese and black pepper blended with blanched pasta.

Service there was arguably the best I’ve ever seen anywhere. Credit Don Grisanti (who died in 1985) for nudging his father, Albert, the owner, to adopt the high standards he learned at Tony’s, a Mobile Travel Guide five-star rated restaurant in St. Louis, along with Michael Grisanti, who backed Don’s dream of changing Casa from a red-sauce joint into a formal restaurant.

And, of course, Casa wouldn’t have been Casa without Vincenzo Gabrielle, whom Don Grisanti recruited from Tony’s in 1978. He was brilliant in his role as maître d’ and eventual partner in the business, and it didn’t hurt a bit that he had that authentic and delicate Italian accent.

(After Gabrielle was forced out of the business in 1985, it was never the same.)

Since Casa Grisanti was so utterly different from anything else in town, it simply was the best by default.

But the best thing that ever happened to Casa Grisanti’s food was the installment of Matthew Antonovich as executive chef in the late 1980s. Plucky, cocky and talented, Antonovich (now chef and co-owner of Mozz and Mozzaria) had the balls to say, in essence, “The waiters shouldn’t be cooking the food. The chefs should.”

And he was right. By keeping food preparation mostly in the kitchen where it belonged, Casa Grisanti’s food got markedly better, and it already was pretty darn good — for the time.

During my last dinner there in 1991, the same year it closed, Antonovich came to a table occupied by me and three friends and insisted we turn over our menus. He wanted to control the meal and surprise us, and we happily obliged. It was the first and only time in my memory that the food exceeded the service there—and the service was really good, but absent of much tableside cooking, it wasn’t as captivating.

Today when you go to St. Charles Exchange, Jack Fry’s, Varanese, Asiatique, Rye, La Coop, etc., the food is what blows you away and service is secondary — truly meaningful and essential, no doubt, but complimentary as it should be. No one goes to a restaurant to be served well, they go mostly to be fed well.

By and large, customers got both at Casa Grisanti, but it was the service, not the grub, that made dining there magic and memorable. I’ve had many tremendous service experiences since, but none like that.

And I doubt I ever will.