Buono! Strega Nonna's Italian fare enchants diners in Negaunee

On Iron Street in downtown Negaunee, a culinary spell has been cast that's enchanting foodies and locals alike. 

Strega Nonna — Italian for "Grandma Witch"— unveiled its magical dining experience, a gastronomic brainchild of 34-year-old Rachael Grossman, earlier this year. With a culinary wand in one hand and a lifetime of cherished Italian dining memories in the other, Grossman is on a mission to bring a slice of Italy to the Upper Peninsula.

The restaurant's name isn't just a whimsical touch; it's steeped in Italian folklore. Strega Nonna pays homage to a beloved tale of a grandmother whose enchanted pot conjures endless pasta with a spell. This narrative layer adds a dash of mystique to the restaurant's entrance sign, which intriguingly features a witch sipping a cocktail, an octopus making a daring escape from a cookpot, and a curious dog as an onlooker.

But this isn't Grossman's first culinary rodeo. She's the mastermind behind Artigiano, a food cart featuring handmade seasonal Italian cuisine in Portland, Oregon, that has garnered a cult-like following. The secret to getting a seat? 

“You really can't get in unless you're on the email list and you respond that day," Grossman says, adding an air of exclusivity to the dining experience in Portland.

Grossman, in a recent interview with Upper Michigan Today, opened up about her choice to split her time between Portland, where she ran Artigiano and her hometown of Negaunee. She's been wintering in Negaunee for a decade, drawn by her love for snow. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and her Portland restaurant temporarily closed, she contemplated buying lakefront property. Realizing the financial impracticality, she decided instead to "buy herself a job."

Upon discovering an available building in Negaunee, Grossman was instantly captivated. She envisioned transforming it into an authentic Italian bar, complete with prosciutto and coffee. Acting on impulse, she purchased the property. Her investment wasn't just in the building but the community she loves and her hometown, where her family lives. Grossman believes Negaunee is on the cusp of significant growth and wants to contribute to its revitalization.

Negaunee resident Janelle Buttery, who is the manager at Kognisjon Brygger (a local brewery), said, “The caliber of anything I have tried was fantastic. I believe it has/will continue to contribute to Negaunee's downtown development. It's the only full-menu Italian restaurant in that town and focuses on real Italian foods versus Americanized versions.” 

Downtown Negaunee is getting a makeover. The enhancement project includes new streets, lighting and a car charging station.Just steps away from Strega Nonna, the city is undergoing a $2.1 million downtown enhancement project. This initiative is upgrading everything from water and street infrastructure to new lighting and car charging stations. Grossman's venture has already benefited from this urban renewal, receiving two economic incentives, including a $25,000 Downtown Economic Development Grant. These funds have been crucial in renovating the former Chappers Pub, which now houses Strega Nonna.

Enhancing the neighborhood's allure is Negaunee’s social district. A sandwich board positioned near the entrance of Strega Nonna details the rules. This development stems from a recent Michigan law that allows alcohol to be sold and consumed off-site within specific zones.

A glimpse inside

On Strega Nonna’s door is a small handwritten note that recommends reservations. A vibrant mural greets visitors when they enter. Local artist and children's book illustrator Diana Magnus created the mural.

Inside the restaurant, the Negaunee Bazaar offers merchandise and imported delicacies.Opposite this cheerful mural in the front corner is the Negaunee Bazaar, a small market offering an array of colorful, eclectic merchandise, as well as wine and imported delicacies like anchovy filets.

Strega Nonna’s atmosphere is inviting. Aromatic scents waft from the kitchen, and toe-tapping music fills the air. The seating is an eclectic mix of mismatched chairs, some patched with black tape. Plates evoke the nostalgic charm of a grandmother's kitchen. 

The menu offers a variety of a la carte options and drink specials. For those looking for a more immersive experience, the restaurant provides a family-style dining option complete with wine pairings. The wait staff encourages a leisurely dining experience, emphasizing the table is reserved for the guests for the entire evening.

When diners opt for the Strega Nonna experience, they are typically served a bread basket and a small saucer of salt. Waiter Alex Williamson recommends adding olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the salt and then soaking the dense Italian bread in the mixture. 

The Strega Nonna experience continues with a beautifully arranged plate of antipasto, featuring marinated white anchovies, grilled octopus (the signature dish), cheese with local jam, and an assortment of marinated vegetables and quail eggs. 

The first pasta course arrives as the remnants of the antipasto vanish from the table. 

The dining experience at Strega Nonna is akin to a chef's tasting menu, or better yet, like having dinner at an Italian grandmother's house. Diners relinquish control and let Grossman’s team work their magic, course after delectable course. The attention from the convivial staff adds to the sensation of enjoying a family dinner.

As the evening unfolds, the meat and final course is served — a red wine-braised pork shoulder infused with poultry herbs, raisins, citrus and served over a bed of wild rice. But that's not all; a sampling of "Mama’s Chicken" also graces the table. This comforting dish is braised in white wine and adorned with olives, capers, and lemon zest, among a medley of other spices.

Williamson, who helps make the pasta, has known Grossman since he was seven, maintaining a friendship for 28 years. Both attended culinary schools — Williamson in Grand Rapids and Grossman at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. 

Williamson returned to Negaunee for what he believed would be a brief stint, helping with the opening of Strega Nonna. His visit has stretched into nine months and he also serves as Strega Nonna's kitchen coordinator. 

In the dining room, guests are also likely to catch a glimpse of a woman with bouncy curls and funky blue-and-white-polka-dotted glasses -- that's the proprietor, Rachael Grossman.

Her mother, a retired high school teacher, also helps out on the floor. “My mom's right there.  And she manages the restaurant, the back end stuff.  But she'll work one day a week serving,” Grossman says.

Grossman’s father is a retired family practice doctor and Strega Nonna’s dishwasher. 

“My dad, he loves it,” Grossman shared with a hint of pride in her voice.  

Visionary’s impact 

Strega Nonna has forged a space in Negaunee that's as enchanting as the tales that inspired it. Grossman, a visionary with deep roots in the community, has also become a key player in the town's revitalization. 

Dining al fresco at Strega Nonna.With the support of her family and a team that shares her passion, Rachael Grossman has turned an old pub into Strega Nonna, where every bite transports you to a different world. It offers more than just a meal — it offers an experience of a lifetime. 

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on LifeInMichigan.com. In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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