What is the hottest new restaurant in West Palm Beach?

The fab new pizzeria on South Dixie Highway has been packed every night since its debut last month. At primetime on most nights, the bar is three rows deep.

Evenings at Grato, opened by the powerhouse team behind Palm Beach’s wildly popular Buccan bistro, is marked by the glow of a wood-burning pizza oven.

“I’m mesmerized by the fire, the scurrying cooks, the bar crowd buzzing,” says cookbook author Judith Olney, who lives within walking distance of the West Palm Beach eatery she describes as a “Brooklyn-style, coolest place in the area.”

Word of the opening has spread far and wide, even earning a mention in the Wall Street Journal last week.

“It’s been insane. It’s been busier than we thought it was going to be,” says Grato executive chef and co-owner Clay Conley.

Why the buzz? The reason can seem contradictory, for it’s as simple as it is complex.

The simple: The chef is a rock star. It’s not every day that a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist opens a pizza joint in a former lighting store on a drab stretch of Dixie Highway.

The food is accessible, too. Grato’s non-fussy menu lists crostini, pizza, pasta, salad and roasted meats.

But the food is elevated. That crostini (four hefty pieces cost $16) is not simply a vessel for the obligatory chopped tomatoes-garlic-basil. It’s a crisp canvas for a burst of flavors, from velvety chicken liver mousse that contrasts with bright pickles and radish shavings, to indulgent beef tartare that’s lifted by horseradish and balsamic onion, to grilled asparagus bits served atop a smash of Parmesan and a kind of béchamel paste.

Look and taste a little more closely and you may notice Grato’s pizza is no ordinary pie, but one made with top-grade organic flour in a brick oven. And the pasta does not tumble out of a box. It’s crafted in-house using a brass-die pasta extruder, which helps ensure the kind of matte texture on the pasta’s surface that helps sauce adhere.

Grato greets you with a big-city hello and sets out to charm you in a Peter Niemitz-designed setting of soaring ceilings, stained concrete floors and dark wood touches.

The Dixie corridor already boasts fine dining spots like Table 26, Kitchen and Jereve at EmKo, but Grato is something different.

“I think Chef Conley has hit a sort of untapped sweet spot in the West Palm Beach market,” says Grato customer Charlie Byrne, a local gastronaut who chronicles his food adventures on Instagram and Twitter as @CharlieDelray. “He sources top quality ingredients, yet you needn’t be a Palm Beach millionaire to dine there. In fact, it doesn’t cost much more than mediocre national chains.”

He predicts local restaurateurs “soon will take note of the crowds, night after night – and could be wise to emulate it.”

Grato, which means “grateful” in Italian, stands to be a game-changer for the area, much like Buccan was for the island.

“The place is uniquely interactive and it will, especially when the Carefree Theater is reborn, anchor and revive South Dixie and Flamingo Park,” says customer Judith Olney. “Yes it’s an instant hit, but it is also a longtime stay.”

Byrne agrees: “It’s trendy, hip and loud, and the open pizza bar is ideal for foodies, but families, seniors, and kids still fit right in.”

For his part, Conley can look out from the open pizza kitchen and observe the bustle.

“Off the bat, I see a lot of familiar faces out there. But then, I see a lot of new people are coming in.”

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