At just 26 years old, Ellen Gracyalny opened Gracie’s on Providence’s famed Federal Hill and differentiated her restaurant from the lineup of great Italian eateries by providing artistic American fare based on seasonal, locally grown ingredients.
The entrepreneur grew up in New Jersey in a family that loved to cook, but she didn’t think of making that passion into a career right away.
She studied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston and worked at a restaurant in the North End of Boston under a demanding chef who challenged her and taught her culinary skills. He also encouraged her to build her food talents with formal training.
So, she toured Johnson & Wales University in Providence and within three weeks she was on her way to earning an associate degree in culinary science.
Gracyalny earned her culinary chops working as the catering manager for Rebecca’s Café in Boston in 1996 and then as a line cook at New England Country Club in Bellingham in 1998. By that time, she wanted to go out on her own and the young chef bought a building on Federal Hill with a business partner. Gracie’s opened on New Year’s Eve.
The small, 30-seat restaurant struggled at first, because it didn’t quite fit in with the restaurant scene there, she said.
“There weren’t many non-Italian restaurants on the Hill, so people would walk in, see the menu, and walk out,” she said. “But within about three years, we got to a point where we were comfortable there and we had many regulars.”
In 2005, Gracyalny moved to a much larger space across from Trinity Repertory Co. theater on Washington Street in Providence, where the restaurant stands today.
Though it was a good move, it was also a difficult one. “It was like starting a new business all over again,” she said. “At the time, there was a stigma about coming downtown. People were nervous about parking there and walking around. That’s changed though, and now it’s a really nice neighborhood that people like coming to.”
And like before, Gracyalny built a strong clientele to fill Gracie’s downtown; a 68-seat dining room, a private room that seats 50 and a wine room that seats 10. She also grew the staff from six employees to 30, and offers both on-premise private events and off-premise catering.
Part of Gracie’s appeal is that Gracyalny uses local, fresh ingredients and the menu changes just about every week based on what’s available.
She sources the food from Farm Fresh, a local community of farmers and businesses. She also uses local cheeses and seafood from local fishermen.
“There is nothing like using fresh, local ingredients or fish that’s just been caught that day,” Gracyalny said. “The difference in flavor is amazing, and it’s also great that we are able to support local farmers.”
In addition, Gracie’s has a rooftop garden with herbs, edible flowers and vegetables that the restaurant’s chefs use. Gracie’s rooftop garden also landed the restaurant on the Top 10 Best Roof-to-Table Dining list by Bon Appetit magazine, and Gracyalny is in the process of building a rooftop greenhouse to extend the restaurant’s growing season.
Gracyalny also differentiates her restaurant with “Gracie’s Star Chef Series,” which brings celebrity chefs from around the country to Gracie’s. “The chefs come in and just wow everyone,” she said.
She also hosts fundraisers and provides financial support to a number of organizations, including the March of Dimes, the Ronald McDonald House and Chefs Collaborative. •