When Ami Vitori moved back home to Middletown in 2015 and saw the revitalization happening downtown, she was inspired to be a part of it.
When she came upon the former JC Penney building on a historic corner of downtown for sale, she had a vision of a great restaurant with a patio on the corner attracting people to Middletown for miles around.
"I wanted to bring some of my experience living in big cities back to my hometown, and the focus for the food and service came from there. The restaurant is named after my grandmother, Gracie who owned and ran a neighborhood grocery for over 60 years with my grandfather, Nick. They were kind and generous people that fed and cared for an entire community through years of ups and downs. I wanted our restaurant to have that same spirit and impact for our city," said Vitori.
The beautifully appointed restaurant celebrated two years at the end of June. It seats 65 inside and 40 on the patio as well as a private dining space accommodating sit down dinners for up to 50, and cocktail appetizers parties for up to 65.
Since opening they have hosted events in the private dining area like a popular comedy night and a supper club that uses the downtown vibes of the space to host intimate music events combined with great food.
Gracie's specializes in big city comfort food that's upscale but approachable.
"Our charred brussels sprouts and crispy pimiento cheese balls have ruled the appetizer section since day one and the housemade meatloaf has been our number one selling dish since it hit the regular dinner menu. It’s made with a spicy chorizo served with housemade onion straws and changing fresh sides, so it delivers great flavor for every season," said Vitori. "They are hearty and warm dishes that conjure up great memories for most diners, but are created with bold flavors and fresh ingredients that bring something new and unexpected to the plate. There is a good kick of spice in dishes like the meatloaf and deviled eggs, and interesting combinations such as of pimiento peppers, golden raisins, feta cheese, and housemade honey dijon with cornbread croutons on our Gracie’s salad. Our dishes deliver balanced flavors, like our cornbread that starts off with a savory red pepper flavor, but finishes sweet; and our blackened walleye over creamy grits which makes for a knockout combination of texture and taste."
Vitori says she's been a foodie for years, having lived in big cities New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where she has experienced big city dining for 25 years.
"We have had a great response from local and visiting customers alike. As Middletown has had its struggles in the last few decades, diners are so happy to have a modern, sit down non-chain restaurant in town that makes them feel the pride our all-American city had from the '60s. Locals love being able to come to downtown again and invite friends to town to see what they have to offer in their hometown," said Vitori. "Neighboring guests come from a good 25 mile radius, from Springboro to Mason, eastern Indiana and Blue Ash and beyond. Those diners love discovering us as a hidden gem and sharing with friends to come back for our great food, service, and atmosphere in our authentic and historic downtown."
The menu, which changes seasonally, currently has a popular homemade potato gnocchi ($17) on it served with oven dried heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, herb citrus marinated gerber chicken breast, meyer lemon cream sauce, goat cheese and fried basil.
The zippy housemade meatloaf ($18) made with ground chuck, chorizo, sage dressing topped with crispy onion straws and served with broccolini and glazed carrots is a signature menu item that is a great, filling dish for fall and winter.
The crispy pimiento cheese balls ($8) are a gooey bit of heaven housed in a crispy shell. A great way to start out the meal.
Starting the restaurant was part of a vision to help take the downtown Middletown revitalization up a notch.
"Our Executive Chef Brian Clark brings a broad flavor profile and a focused perspective to executing familiar yet elevated dishes at Gracie’s. I find his composition and combination of ingredients to be deeply satisfying in the way comfort food should be, but also surprising and new," said Vitori. "Chef does amazing new specials on the weekends such as a sous vide Berkshire pork chop, seared scallops, fresh snapper, and more; always with a different seasonal finish."
It's a restaurant with a beautiful design aesthetic that has been thoughtfully executed and feels like it could be in any of the big cities Vitori has spent time living in, but it also has an accessible neighborhood vibe.
The restaurant's craft cocktails help make for a more urban experience with house favorites and seasonal specialty drinks that compliment Gracie's menu filled with dozens of twists on comfort food. Earlier this year they had the Dullahan, a drink made with charcoal, and the Gin Houdini served with a second glass to mix and watch the drink change colors.
A recent visit had a backyard barbecue bloody Mary ($14) which is one of the mothers of all bloody Mary drinks served with a deviled egg, fried pimento cheese ball, pickled asparagus and olives. It's not cheap and it lives up to the BBQ title in a big way, so if you like a good bloody Mary and barbecue, this one’s for you. The creation speaks to the creativity they try to bring into their bar program.
After several visits I would recommend going on the weekend when the kitchen seems to execute on the menu a little better. On all visits at least one dish was noticeably over salted.
Ordinarily, I love brussels sprouts and Gracie's were good served with bacon and a citrus aioli, but they could have used a little more attention to get them to fulfill their destiny. All the right flavors were there but it needed more time cooking.
Overall this is a hip, smart restaurant at the heart of a special downtown looking to help revitalize Middletown with a menu and a point of view that is refreshing to see.
The love that Vitori has clearly poured into Gracie's and all of the special moments the restaurant and menu has do a touching job of paying homage to her grandparents, Nick and Gracie, who ran Vitori's Market in Middletown for 61 years. After 80 years open, Vitori's Market closed in 2007. The sign from the store hangs behind the bar of the restaurant as you first enter in a proud place.
It's clear from the minute you walk through the doors of Gracie's how much these two special people meant to Vitori and how dedicated they were to their town.
And in 2019, it's heartwarming to see Vitori picking up that legacy in such a thoughtful, touching way.
WANT TO GO?
Where: 1131 Central Ave., Middletown
Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Closed Sundays.
Special nights: Kids eat free Mondays; Taco Tuesday; Whiskey and wings Wednesday; Italian night Thursday.
More information: 513-915-7476 or www.graciesmiddletown.com