There are no smells of cooking. There is no sizzle from the kitchen. Grezzo, in the North End, is a raw food restaurant (and vegan, and mostly organic) - no ingredient here ever gets warmer than 112 degrees, the temperature at which enzymes are said to be destroyed.
The raw food diet is heavy on fruits, vegetables, nuts, sprouts, and seaweed - "living" foods - and adherents claim it brings substantial benefits for health and well-being. Where the diet may once have seemed solely for hippies and Californians, it has gained traction in the mainstream. A Whole Foods display recently showcased five books on the subject; the "Today" show, "The Tyra Banks Show," and "
The restaurant's name is Italian - it means "raw" - and it does serve pasta of a sort: papaya pappardelle; gnocchi made from nuts and dressed with "creamy rawmesan," a faux cheese sauce made from more nuts. Still, when Grezzo opened, it seemed a stretch for the North End, an area that draws those in search of piping hot noodle dishes topped with grated realmesan. Parking here is notoriously scant, and raw food is destination dining. (There are also raw food restaurants in Beverly and Lowell, so maybe that's where the cars go.) Nonetheless, on each visit, Grezzo is busy. Perhaps the sushi craze has opened people's minds. Maguro: the gateway raw food.
Indeed, many of the diners appear to be converts. There are the two young women deep in conversation about the raw lifestyle, health, weight, and life's challenges. "Don't hate that it's bad, think about it and send love to it," one says supportively to the other. "I love that!" her friend exclaims happily.
There's the woman talking to a waitress at a corner table. "I'm not even supposed to be here," she says. "I should have died, but then I started eating raw." The waitress says, "I told Alissa in the kitchen, and she started crying." (Each time I ate at Grezzo, someone was talking passionately about the diet, and someone was talking about crying - the emotions here can be as raw as the food.)
The servers, too, are drinking the Kool-Aid - or, more accurately, the delicious and refreshing non-alcoholic mojito: fresh lime juice, mint, and agave over kombucha and ice (there's uninteresting organic wine offered, one red and one white, but a full list is coming soon). The staff members are excellent advertisements for their product - they exude serenity, have glowing skin, and smile unflaggingly. "She's just so happy," a cynical diner marvels each time our waitress comes by.
But the staff doesn't evangelize about the benefits of raw and living food unless you ask. Instead, there's a laminated card titled "40 reasons to eat raw" on each table. (Reason 1: Imagine jumping out of bed in the morning feeling totally awake, vibrantly alive & healthier than you have ever felt before. Reason 8: You can eat a whole banana cream pie for lunch.)
The lack of overt preaching means you can eat at Grezzo for 40 reasons, or for one: the food. To sample the widest variety of executive chef Leah Dubois's dishes, opt for the chef's tasting: two soups, two appetizers, a salad, an entree, and dessert. It's a lot of food. If you were thinking you'd sneak over to Pizzeria Regina for an after-dinner snack, think again. Dinner at Grezzo is filling, even a la carte: All that fiber!
The soups are pleasant. A creamy white corn soup tastes mostly of almond milk, the flavor of the kernels pealing softly in the distance. It's a surprise, as a bold corn essence seems easy to achieve in rawdom. The soup is dusted with cayenne and contains refreshing chunks of jicama and avocado. A sweet potato soup has a mild sweet potato taste, with the flavors of coconut and grapefruit also strong. Its flavoring is reminiscent of a Thai red curry, and that spicing could be amped up, but this subtle soup grows on you as you eat.
Gnocchi carbonara is good, provided you erase any preconceptions of "gnocchi" and "carbonara" from your mind. The dumplings are made from cashews, pine nuts, garlic, and lemon; the little clumps might not be appealing on their own, but they're topped with pea shoots and raw English peas, which lend a fresh, green flavor that perks things up. Chewy bits of eggplant offer textural contrast, and the rawmesan - a blender sauce of macadamia nuts, garlic, and oil - brings creaminess.
Grezzo's sliders are patties made from carrots, red pepper, celery, and cashews, with Indian spices. They're smooth throughout; it would be nice to have vegetable or cashew chunks in there for crunch, but they're still better than many veggie burgers, and the house-made pickles on top are delicious. Tomato slices stand in for a bun, and the accompanying "pommes frites," of course, aren't really frites. They're thin slices of dehydrated potato treated with apple cider vinegar and sea salt. Eating them is a bit like eating packing material, but with an enjoyable salt-and-vinegar pucker. Just don't think of them as pommes frites.
A meal at Grezzo is a series of such check-your-notions-at-the-door moments. The sliders come with watercress dressed in "blue cheese" that is neither blue nor cheese, but another nut cream. Croutons are made from almond pulp, and breadsticks from a dehydrated mixture of sprouted buckwheat, flax seed, peppers, and scallions. Ravioli is tomato slices with a filling of - wait for it - more nut cheese (this time "Boursin").
But sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't. So many of the dishes rely on these faux cheeses that your enjoyment of a meal at Grezzo may be largely determined by how much you like "feta" or "ricotta." To me, these substances have their moments, but what I really love are vegetables - and so, while admiring the ingenuity of other dishes, I best like the ones that don't muck around emulating foods outside of the restaurant's bailiwick.
Were I a raw foodist or a vegan longing for variety, I suspect I would feel differently. But I'm not, so give me one of Grezzo's beautiful salads any day. The house salad is a huge mound of greens with thin rounds of radishes, maroon carrots, and sprouts galore. The almond pulp croutons appear for a soft crunch, and sprouted chickpeas prove addictive. Their taste and texture are reminiscent of green almonds. The seaweed salad - sea beans, strips of nori, and "noodles" of kelp - gets a nice kick from wasabi.
The papaya pappardelle is also excellent, an extension of the Southeast Asian salads featuring the fruit. Here it's shaved into noodles that are tossed with a creamy tarragon and mustard "thermidor," fresh garbanzos, haricots verts, and - in a touch reminiscent of Turkish pilafs - piquant currants.
And for dessert there's the rich brownie sundae. The cake is made from nuts, dates, and raw cacao - fruity and fudgy and dense. It's topped with gelato made in house from nut milk, studded with tiny, slightly bitter, intriguing chips that taste like raw cacao. Mango and strawberry purees complete the picture, along with a magically melted chocolate sauce - how did they do that?
As a restaurant, there is no doubt that Grezzo succeeds, appealingly and sophisticatedly packaging a lifestyle. And yet to someone who hasn't adopted that lifestyle, the dishes sometimes feel more cerebral than soulful, born of prudence (a decision to be healthy) rather than abandon (an impulse to inhale anything delicious). In that sense, there is a coolness to this food that is unrelated to the cutoff point of 112 degrees. Like certain works of art, Grezzo's raw cuisine can raise the most basic questions about its form: What is cooking? Must there be heat, wafting aromas, a sizzling pan? For anyone raised in the religion of food-is-love, these things are part of the ritual. By the end of a meal at Grezzo, you will find yourself full, but you may feel something is missing.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.