Destiny, one could say, led Andrew Ferlazzo, owner of Grass Rootes, a restaurant at 195 East Davis Street, back to his hometown. And led him back to the building that unearthed his love for food and the restaurant business.
Born in Culpeper, Ferlazzo used to ride his bike to the African-American church across the street from building 195 as a child and climb up to the balcony to listen to the gospel music. “It just blew my mind,” he said.
After the gospel choir finished, Ferlazzo would cross the street to see Alice Pumilia, who owned a restaurant called Davis Street Ordinary.
“She would let me come in,” he said, as a 12-year-old, “and she’d explain the restaurant business to me. And say, this is how you communicate kitchen to the floor, this is how this works. I said, ‘Alice, this is what I want to do.’ I said, ‘I want to be here.’ And she said, ‘One day you’ll be in this building.’”
The building itself is the oldest commercial building in Culpeper, dating back to 1790, when Thomas Reade Rootes purchased it, creating the first documentation in a deed of sale. Rootes was a prominent lawyer and a member of the state House of Delegates. Grass Rootes is his namesake.
Over time, the building has housed such enterprises as a tobacco warehouse, stables, a tin shop, and a hardware store, in addition to its current food service use. It has survived two fires and an earthquake.
Culpeper is known as the crossroads of the Civil War, and building 195 breathes history. The building’s basement has been used as a prison for runaway slaves, a quarantine for those with contagious diseases, a prison for both Confederate and Union soldiers and is, purportedly, home to a number of ghosts.
Several paranormal television shows and experts have come to detect the supernatural at the site, Ferlazzo said. Now, the jail area is used for private events. But the jail bars adorn the walls in historic reminder.
Ferlazzo has over 30 years of experience in the restaurant business and his philosophy for running a good restaurant is very simple: “If I was sitting at that table what would I want?”
And diners certainly get what they want.
All Ferlazzo’s ingredients come from local farms such as Seven Springs and Super Foods Farm. The raw ingredients come from the farms, make a quick stop in Grass Rootes’ kitchen and then are delivered directly to the table. As it always should be, Ferlazzo said.
“We can do anything,” he said. The chefs welcome requests not on the menu. If a customer is vegan, for example, and doesn’t see a vegan item on the menu, “the chefs will come out to the table,” Ferlazzo said, “and talk them through” what ingredients they have on hand and what the diner is hankering for.
According to Ferlazzo, the industry has changed, and if you don’t change with it, your restaurant will be in trouble. He realizes how individuals with certain food allergies or diets have not always had the best experiences when going out for a night of fine dining. “We want to cook for you,” he said, “because I know—I’ve been in the industry so long—I know how a lot of people have been treated in the past.”
Grass Rootes is about good food, good music and creating community through those things and through Culpeper’s unique history. The restaurant got its name from the building’s first owner in 1790. Photographs of Culpeper from different eras line the walls; the basement is rehabbed back to the original 19th century jail and is available for private parties; Civil War ghosts walk the kitchen at night, pics of jazz greats hang above tables and local musicians perform every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
History, community and the prophetic words of Alice Pumilia grace Davis Street in building 195 where destiny and great food meet.