Chef-owner John Vallario at the counter, showing some of his freshly baked challah bread and chocolate cupcakes. Chef-owner John Vallario at the counter, showing some of his freshly baked challah bread and chocolate cupcakes.
View and purchase photos
What’s not to like about a restaurant named Grandma’s Grotto? Located in Horsham across from the former naval air station, it’s a warm, unpretentious Italian eatery offering pizza, pasta, salads and Italian entrées — plus some of the best pastries you’ll find this side of Zake’s.
But before you go thinking that it’s just another friendly neighborhood haven, you must know that co-owners John and Desiree Vallario have created the most unique menu in the region — one that is roughly 90 percent gluten-free.
According to Chef John Vallario, “No one in the world makes as many gluten-free foods as I do. I’ve been thinking about putting a challenge out there on Facebook to see if anyone, anywhere, makes more gluten-free foods than I do.”
The chief recipients of the chef’s fully researched menu are those suffering from celiac disease, a chronic nutritional disorder caused by the intestine’s inability to absorb gluten. This can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea and malnutrition and, if not treated properly over a long period of time, possibly to anemia, liver disease and various forms of cancer, including cancer of the pancreas.
Since gluten is a mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, you can imagine how prevalent it is in all kinds of foods and how dangerous it can be to those allergic to it. In fact, it is known to afflict one in 133 people in the United States. At the moment, there is no known cure for the disease, but it can be effectively managed by following a gluten-free diet.
Here’s where the Vallarios step in.
“Customers would come in and ask if we had gluten-free food,” said the chef. “At first, I said no; I was not familiar with it. But I started doing a lot of research and began experimenting with gluten-free foods. If I didn’t reach a point where I couldn’t fool myself that what I was eating tastes just as good as gluten foods, then I’d throw it away and start over until I got it right. Now I really like it. And I’m not allergic to gluten.
“Now I’m fully certified,” he said, “and I learned that everyone would profit from eating gluten-free foods.”
But don’t misunderstand. Grandma’s Grotto is a full-service restaurant. Virtually everything on the menu can be made gluten-free, so in effect, roughly 90 percent of the menu items are gluten-free. But gluten dishes are also available.
And Chef John is careful to avoid cross-contamination. He always has two pots of water boiling at all times so that he can accommodate any guest’s dietary needs or preferences.
The night of our visit, the counter — filled with an assortment of beautiful chocolate dipped cookies, cinnamon rugelech, honey muffins, cupcakes and sliced challah bread — was really buzzing. John Vallario was smiling like one of Santa’s elves, busily handing out samples of his breads, apple pie and sweet treats to any customer who walked in.
At the counter we met a Horsham resident named Jeff Livezey, who had just had dinner there with his parents, visiting from Brigantine, N.J. His father, John, has celiac disease and loves visiting Grandma’s Grotto whenever he’s in the area. Jeff said that his father had just had the Eggplant Parmigiana and loved it.
“People think that you’re sacrificing taste and flavor,” said Jeff. “But my parents can’t find pastas in stores that even come close to tasting as good as [Chef] John’s food.”
At a table in the main dining room sat a Horsham attorney named Doug Lally, who bills himself, colorfully, as “The Bankruptcy Shark.” He said, “I eat here almost every night. I’m gluten-intolerant and I love John’s food — especially the Meat Lasagna. It’s hard to find decent gluten-free food anywhere that’s not naturally gluten-free.”
To look at the menu (aside from the words “Gluten Free” emblazoned at the top), you’d hardly know the difference. The starters, for example, include Fried Calamari Rings ($11.95), served with a side of homemade marinara; Broccoli Rabe Madness ($13.95), broccoli rabe with roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes topped with gluten-free bread crumbs and olive oil; Caprese Salad ($9.95), roasted peppers, tomatoes, red onions and fresh mozzarella dashed with olive oil and garlic; and homemade soup of the day ($2.95, cup; $4.95, bowl), like the chef’s excellent Pasta e Fagioli.
The Vallarios, who hail from Brooklyn, also offer a Brooklyn Plain Pizza (like Margherita, $9.95, $14.95); Grandma’s Tomato Pie ($9.95, $15.95); California Pizza ($11.95, $19.95), a white pie topped with chicken, bacon, chopped tomatoes and ranch dressing; and Prosciutto Sauce Pie ($11.95, $19.95), prosciutto and onions sautéed in marinara sauce, topped with fresh mozzarella.
Even the pastas and entrées bear the stamp of a chef who not only cares about his customers but also loves eating good food. He offers an excellent Meat Lasagna ($13.95), layered with ricotta, ground beef and tomato sauce, topped with melted mozzarella; Pasta Primavera ($16.95), penne with fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach and broccoli in a rosa sauce; and entrées the likes of Sausage & Broccoli Rabe ($19.95), sweet Italian sausage and broccoli rabe sautéed with olive oil and garlic; Eggplant Rollantini ($18.95), rolled eggplant slices filled with ricotta and mozzarella, topped with tomato sauce; Chicken Calabria ($22.95), sautéed chicken, crabmeat and Portobello mushrooms in a pink sauce over pasta; and Seafood Medley ($23.95), a huge bowl of mussels, shrimp, calamari and baby clams in a marinara sauce.
Desserts include Cheese Cake ($4.95); several varieties of layer cake ($5.95); homemade Cannoli ($4.95), with probably the world’s only gluten-free cannoli shells; and more.
Dining at Grandma’s Grotto — named after Desiree’s beloved grandmother (and John said, “Everybody uses cucina or kitchen, so I thought, why not grotto?”) — is a warm, entertaining family experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet and be served by the sweet and lovely Desiree herself, or one of her two pretty daughters, Breanne or Alexis Digrazio. The Vallarios’ adorable 18-month-old son, Anthony, a certified charmer, might also be there with his goodhearted parents.
The chef, who told me he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother — “They thought I was so cute, so they let me cook” — is a real sketch. He said he owned his first store when he was 16, managed a Good Humor truck while still a teen, had his first full-service food restaurant at 19 (called Miami Slice) and owned several pizzerias, including a pizzeria truck on Wall Street.
When the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center complex took place on 9/11, the Vallarios gave away thousands of pizzas to the rescue workers, police and grief-stricken citizens of the beleaguered metropolis. Why?
“I couldn’t let them go hungry.”
When asked how he got from Brooklyn and Staten Island to Horsham, he said, with an obvious wink, “Witness protection.” But don’t laugh too hard. On the sound system, you’ll hear the likes of Dean Martin and Julius LaRosa singing from CDs aptly named “Mob Music.”
He explained, “I would have been a stand-up comic, but I have bad legs.”
Right — and a chef sits down all day.
Desiree said that offering a gluten-free menu is just what the doctor ordered — in a manner of speaking.
She said, “I always wanted to be a nurse, but it never happened. So this is a great alternative. It’s really rewarding. Customers sometimes cry at the table because they say they can finally eat like ‘normal people.’ I love to serve the people. It makes them feel safe.”
Grandma’s Grotto caters for all occasions, does a big takeout business (there’s plenty of fresh and frozen gluten-free foods available at Grandma’s Market near the counter), offers military discounts and does everything in its power to make all its customers happy enough to return again and again.