La Grata opened on the avenue near East 134th Street earlier this month — one of many businesses launched in the South Bronx by the prolific real estate investor, including Filtered Coffee and the combination art gallery-fashion boutique 9J.
The kitchen is being lead by chef Erminio Conte, 41, who moved to the city from Southern Italy 15 years ago, with a simple menu featuring pizza, paninis, salads, calzones and spaghetti made with a meatball recipe passed down from his grandmother.
"Here, I can be myself and enjoy cooking," Conte said, adding that he cooks a mean lasagna that he learned to make from his mother.
"My mom is an excellent chef. Maybe the best food you remember is your mom’s food, no?"
His signature La Grata pizza comes topped with tomato, ricotta, mozzarella and basil. The pizzas are cooked up in one of two brick fire ovens Conte imported from Naples. Dishes range in price from $9 to $17.
Although Rubenstein's projects in the neighborhood has stirred controversy before — notably his placement of a billboard by the Third Avenue Bridge last fall saying that the "Piano District" was coming soon — Conte said he's had a warm reception from the community so far, noting that "99.9 percent" of his staff is from The Bronx.
"It’s all in the way you treat your customers, your people in the neighborhood," he said. "If you come with the right attitude, the people are very welcoming.
Fashion designer Jerome LaMaar, who runs 9J and had stopped by La Grata on Tuesday, said he's eaten there almost daily since it opened on Oct. 3.
"It's great food," he said, "but I don't feel intimidated about spending the money."
The South Bronx and Port Morris in particular have seen several new restaurants move in over the past few years:
La Grata, at 136 Alexander Ave. and East 134th Street., is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.