In 2022, Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time here.
La Grotta is where I fell in love with restaurants. It happened over time, and mainly when its doors were closed. As a girl, my parents became friends with owner and chef Antonio Abizanda, who lived in one of the condos above the restaurant tucked away on Peachtree. Abizanda was as close as I came to having an uncle in Atlanta, and I like to think he claims my sister and me as family, too.
When Abizanda wasn’t working at La Grotta, he would take us to over-the-top Sunday brunches at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead, where towers of seafood and dishes of caviar with all the trimmings became part of my culinary education. On Sunday evenings, he and my father cooked together while drinking red wine and joking in Spanish.
If dinners were at Abizanda’s apartment, dessert meant taking the elevator to the basement of La Grotta to choose sweets from the walk-in freezer and playing hide-and-seek in the dining room or sneaking sleeves of breadsticks while he attended to something at the restaurant.
Abizanda taught me to make paella and risotto and, most importantly, to always cook with good ingredients. La Grotta isn’t just another Atlanta restaurant to me, it’s where I came to appreciate food and ultimately shaped me as a cook in my formative years.
As I’ve grown older, now raising my own family, I realize La Grotta is important to a lot of Atlantans. It’s a special occasion restaurant where anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, and other milestones are celebrated. It’s an Atlanta destination for old school Italian food, like veal with truffles. And while the dress code has morphed over the decades and service turned more casual, La Grotta retains a feeling of elegance and refinement, even after 40 years at the bottom of that condo building on Peachtree.
I wanted to know why, and turned to La Grotta founding partner Sergio Favialli for answers, as Abizanda is currently traveling and enjoying his retirement.
“Many people told us, ‘You are crazy to go there. The place looks like an old folks’ home’,” Favialli says of the space La Grotta has occupied for four decades.
Favialli and Abizanda met while working together at the Omni Hotel in Bermuda before both were transferred to the Atlanta location. When they opened La Grotta in 1978, there weren’t many Italian restaurants here, aside from Nino’s and Alfredo’s on Cheshire Bridge. At the time, ingredients like fresh parmesan and basil were hard to find, and tomato sauce made from scratch was unheard of in Atlanta. Abizanda and Favalli brought in the best ingredients they could find from Europe, from mozzarella to olive oil.
The partners started off with affordable price points, hoping to compete with other Atlanta restaurants. Soon, they found people were dining regularly at La Grotta for special occasions or for business.
“They still come. We cultivated the culture of personal touch when you come to a restaurant,” Favialla says. “Also, the consistency in the food and the kitchen because Antonio and I had several discussions, sometimes heated discussions. We always had our differences, but for the benefit of the business, you have to keep it up with the service and the food…consistent, consistent, consistency.”
After 50 years working together at various establishments, Abizanda and Favialli finally retired last year. When Abizanda left, his sous chef of many years also departed. There’s a new chapter being written now at La Grotta by a new generation of Atlanta chefs and restaurateurs.
Chef Daniel Chance, who cut his teeth with Atlanta restaurateurs Bob Amick and Todd Rushing at Concentrics Restaurant Group, is leading the kitchen here, making his own mark, while preserving the essence of the food served at La Grotta for its regulars. Favialli’s son, Christian, who has worked in the front of house for years, is carrying on in his father’s place.
“He had this magnanimous aura and personality about himself that is just big and grand,” Christian says of his dad. “My brother and I have done our damnedest to emulate him.”
“He taught us this is a business and you have to put in your due diligence and time. That’s part of why I think La Grotta is successful,” Christian adds. “One of them was always here. An owner will always be here to greet you, to say ‘hello’.”
Christian is a natural, just like his father. He makes it a point to always shake hands with guests and continues to press for the same standards of service and food Abizanda and his father expected and maintained at La Grotta for decades. It helped build a regular customer base and create loyalty among the staff.
That loyalty and love for La Grotta was most apparent during the early days of the pandemic. Determined to keep the staff employed, the restaurant weathered the first few months of the health crisis offering to-go orders and then opening the patio for dining. Regulars contributed over $50,000 worth of gift cards, with proceeds benefiting the La Grotta employees.
I’m not the only Atlantan who loves this restaurant or with a deep, personal connection to it.
“I want people who walk in our doors to be made to feel like they’re the most special people in the world,” says Christian. “I want them to walk away feeling like they not only celebrated their special occasion, but felt we really cared that they came.”
My childhood experiences at La Grotta were a privilege due to my parents’ friendship with Abizanda, but seeing the inner workings of a restaurant made me appreciate how food comes to be placed on the table and what it takes to run a successful restaurant. I suspect longtime regulars have their own personal stories to tell about La Grotta, part of that special connection first cultivated by Abizanda and Favialli, and now fostered by Christian to take La Grotta into its next 40 years.
2637 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. lagrottaatlanta.com.
Jennifer Zyman is a restaurant critic and host of the podcast The Food That Binds, a podcast about food and relationships. She was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and raised in Atlanta, where she continues to live with her family. She is a graduate of Emory University and California Culinary Academy. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Atlanta magazine, Bon Appetit, Creative Loafing, Eater Atlanta, The Kitchn, National Geographic, Serious Eats, Southern Living, and Thrillist.