When the public demands authentic Italian food, one man gives it to them.
Giuseppe Penza, a native of Naples, Italy, has re-launched the old Bravo Italian Restaurant and transformed it into an updated dining experience — Agrodolce Italian Restaurant, located in the Market Square East shopping center on East Market Street.
Penza regained ownership of this location after answering the requests of the building’s landlord when business began to slow for its previous owners.
“I have a lot of people here in town that tell me, ‘Please come back, your food was good and now it’s not good anymore,’” Penza said. “So I took it back and … I want to do something different.”
He and a team of dedicated staff decided to launch an expansive renovation, not only to the restaurant’s appearance, but also to its menu and dining experience.
“It took about five months because we had all the materials come from Italy and we had a guy come from Italy to do everything,” Penza said.
Upon entering the restaurant, the addition of Italian flair and Penza’s passion for detailed perfection is evident. A granite sign hangs over the hostess stand with a laser-engraved logo of Agrodolce. This attention to detail expands to intricate tiling, brickwork and marble accents that encompass the entire restaurant. A warm, inviting yellow covers an accent wall in the dining room, and the richly-colored wooden tables topped with a bottle of extra virgin olive oil are reminiscent of Italian eateries.
The centerpiece of the décor, though, is the newly renovated wood-fired grill and wood-fired oven with detailed brickwork and star designs shaped from marble. When Bruce Forbes, one of the namesakes of JMU’s Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, saw the design of the grill, he knew it would make the perfect addition to his home.
“He liked it so much that he built the brick oven grill in his house,” Penza said.
The grill and oven aren’t solely for design purposes, though. Unlike many restaurants that claim to use 100 percent wood but instead use gas, Penza said Agrodolce uses white oak wood to add a smoky flavor to pizzas and weekend specialty dishes like rotisserie chickens and seafood.
The wine bar offers another unique touch. A special machine preserves opened bottles of wine for up to two weeks by adding an argon seal. The odorless and inert gas is released into each bottle of wine and prevents oxygen from entering the bottle and spoiling the taste.
There are 90 different kinds of wine available by bottle and over 20 available by glass. To preserve the Italian theme and authenticity of the restaurant, Penza made sure to select wines that are all Italian. His collection includes an extensive assortment of both white and red wines that accommodate a variety of palates.
Penza’s appreciation for quality, authentic Italian cuisine extends to his newest addition straight from Italy — his prized pasta machine that makes fresh pasta daily in all shapes and sizes. A marble-topped seating area is positioned directly in front of the pasta maker so guests can witness the “pasta show.”
“We want to be the first to make fresh pasta where people can see it,” Penza said. “That’s something very unique, only something you see in big cities, big restaurants like that.”
The machine is just one part in helping Penza achieve his overarching goal of bringing authentic Italian food to the people of Harrisonburg.
“It doesn’t matter how much somebody makes, I want to bring basically everybody the opportunity to have extra virgin olive oil on the table and to have good Italian food,” Penza said.
Agrodolce’s most popular dishes are Italian classics. Their lasagna combines traditional flavors of freshly-made lasagna noodles, hearty ground beef, gooey parmigiana cheese, rich ricotta cheese and an herby tomato sauce into a flavorful, homemade specialty. Their quattro formaggi ravioli is another hit and features freshly-made ravioli noodles with various shapes to correlate with holidays or special occasions, such as hearts for Valentine’s Day or footballs for the Super Bowl.
The majority of Agrodolce’s entrees are served with homemade garlic bread. A thick, toasty slice of bread serves as the basis for a generous layer of melty butter and fresh garlic pieces.
Penza aims to show people that good Italian food doesn’t always have to be unhealthy.
“Everything we prepare, everything’s fresh and nothing on the menu is fried,” Penza said.
The quality of food and the authentic Italian experience is what Penza hopes will set apart Agrodolce. He’s already gotten positive responses concerning all aspects of the restaurant.
“We are all so happy to have a good Italian restaurant back in Harrisonburg,” customer Kara Allen said. “I love the new look when you walk in, how the kitchen is clean and open, and the staff did a great job on one of their first nights open.”
Manager Rachel Rose is excited for the future of the restaurant and has enjoyed watching the entire process unfold.
“I just like seeing the restaurant evolve because I’ve been here from when it was a construction site to hiring everybody to seeing him work on the food and then seeing the servers learn,” Rose said. “It’s just exciting to watch everything evolve, it’s like watching a child grow up.”
Server Jessica Rew also anticipates success and can’t wait to see what Agrodolce holds for her.
“I’ve never worked in an Italian restaurant so I thought it’d be cool to experience something new,” Rew said.
With a committed team and a ton of support behind him, Penza hopes Agrodolce has a lasting impact on the Harrisonburg community.
“I want to challenge people,” Panza said. “It kind of pushes other people to do better and it’s fun for me to do that. And that’s how you have to do it, you have to keep raising the bar higher and higher.”
Contact Nicolette Chuss at firstname.lastname@example.org