Sometimes it seems as though Graziano’s has been around as long as the Androscoggin River. Everybody knows it, just about everybody loves it. The restaurant is known for two things: exquisite Italian food and its usefulness as a landmark — when given directions to a place in Lisbon or Lisbon Falls, a person is almost always advised what do to once he reaches Graziano’s. To find out more about the place, we spoke with Joe Graziano himself.
How long has Graziano’s Restaurant been around? My father opened a small one-room bar at this location in 1969. But he always wanted it to be so much more, so he worked very hard to shake the reputation of a tough joint with a rowdy clientele, and by the mid 1970s he was happy to be more widely known for his good food and friendly atmosphere. By 1981 we had bought up all the adjoining buildings and created this rambling museum of sorts that we are today.
What is it with the boxing decor? Was someone in your family a fighter? My great-uncle Tony owns a restaurant in Canastota, N.Y., (home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame) which is also named Graziano’s Casa Mia, and he was a trainer in his day. He even trained two world champions in Billy Backus and Carmen Basilio. My father was brought up in his restaurant, as well as his gym, so boxing and food were always around him. It seemed natural to have those two connected. Also, the Lewiston area had a well-known boxing history through most of the 20th century, so when he moved here it was a no-brainer.
Have you ever been a boxer? Heck no. Who wants to be punched in the face for a living?
Maybe you should be on Top Chef. Oh, I could never do that. Cooking is very personal and is way too subjective for me to consider it a competition. Food is a direct connection between the preparer and the consumer. Sadly that idea is lost in a sea of chain restaurants and fast food joints. We need to get back to the communal relationship where we know the people that make our dinners and we trust the farmers and the people who buy our foods. I’ve gotten pretty passionate about this topic lately, and it disturbs me that we can feed a family of four with greasy fast food for under $10 and a bag of apples costs almost a third of that. What have we become? But I digress.
So what is new at Graziano’s? Nice segue. We sell a lot of steaks for an Italian restaurant, so I decided to stop buying the mass-produced corn-fed product that floods 90 percent of the market and switched to local grass-fed beef from Bisson and Sons in Topsham. If you’ve never tasted the difference you will surely be surprised. It tastes like a rib-eye steak should. Also, we try to buy from local purveyors and organic markets whenever possible. It’s a slow process, but in the end, we hope it will be as good for our customers as it will be for our community and our state.
Any truth to the rumor that your Chicken Alfredo is so good some people want to marry it? Well, if they mean that it is fulfilling, rich and probably more than they need or deserve, then yes.
Do you cook at home? Sometimes. My wife is a great cook, so family dinners are often more home-style comfort food, and I like that. When I cook I’m always trying new things that our teenage kids don’t always appreciate. I don’t think they like being test subjects.
What do you do when you’re not twirling spaghetti or making the sauce? The usual, I guess. Music, books, movies. I play my guitar when I can, and spend entirely too much time being an amateur philosopher on Facebook.