By Heidi Baumstark | Photos courtesy of Girasole
Girasole. In Italian, it means “sunflower” or “surrounded by the sun.” Surrounded by the sun—what a warm thought, especially in brisk conditions. A meal at this cheerful restaurant named Girasole serves up the tastiest remedy to stave off winter blues.
Chef-owned and operated by Louis and Lydia Patierno, Girasole fits the bill when it comes to featuring authentic regional Italian cuisine. Girasole’s rustic setting, located in the postcard village of The Plains, is complete with wooden beams, art-filled walls (paintings by Robert Patierno, Louis’s brother), vases of vibrant flowers (of course, including sunflowers), big Italian urns, a cozy lounge/bar, and a landscaped patio that beckons patrons to stop. Relax. And dine.
While Chef Patierno is in the kitchen conjuring up winning dishes, Lydia meticulously oversees business operations using her years in hotel and restaurant management to ensure top-notch service. They both were trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, which is where they met some 40 years ago. And Girasole is a family-run business. “All of our adult kids worked here after college,” Lydia explained. “One daughter, Gabriela, still works here full-time.”
Girasole sources only the freshest ingredients: produce from local farms, grass-fed and naturally raised meats, and hand-pressed olive oils. Housemade pastas and breads are on their seasonal menu. Lydia added, “We try our best to replicate great Italian food. And here in The Plains, we have all kinds of farmers knocking on our door.”
“When you have a passion, you live it; and this is our passion.”
– Lydia Patierno
Chef Patierno creates eight or more weekly specials, which are not on the regular menu, but are explained carefully by servers. Based on what’s available in season, diners could see anything from pistachio-encrusted trout to beef Barolo (full-bodied Italian wine) with creamy polenta, finishing with delicate pastries and cups of steaming espresso.
The restaurant also hosts cooking classes in the lounge/bar area, where afterward, guests share the prepared meal; the next classes are Feb. 7 (soups and antipasti) and March 7 (pasta making). On Valentine’s Day, chef Patierno will prepare a four-course gourmet dinner, and Feb. 19, a special wine tasting is planned by fine wine importer Michael Downey Selections.
Themed events are also offered like their six-course annual truffle dinner in the fall, which is a 14-year tradition. Paired with the truffles are wines from the G.D. Vajra family winery in Italy. Lydia added, “We have a truffle hunter who ships white truffles from the Alba region in Italy; they’re the most expensive and the best.”
A unique offering in winter months is Girasole’s four-course interactive Murder Mystery dinners that keep diners guessing “whodunit” murder mysteries. Those mystery stories are prepared and hosted by John and Holli Todhunter, proprietors of Three Fox Vineyards in Delaplane. Holli added, “During the dinner, clues are passed out and guests have to figure out the clue. At the end, the winner gets a prize.” The next one is March 12, featuring the Italian Marche region and Three Fox wine pairings.
Guests can also take a little of Girasole home with them. Recently, Irene Gluck of Catharpin attended a wine dinner with her husband. They walked out with a rustic Italian bread round. “You can buy their bread, wine and olive oil,” she said. “The bread is wonderful and crispy—just to die for.”
The Patiernos’ love for all things Italy stems from their Italian roots. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1974, they held an assortment of chef and management jobs in several restaurants. Most notably, chef Patierno worked for 12 years at the high-end Tiberio in DC, learning from gifted European chefs while Lydia worked on the U.S. culinary Olympic team led by German chef Hubert Schmieder. Lydia also worked in restaurants in Iowa and Indianapolis before returning to DC. “In those days,” Lydia said, “few women chefs were hired, so I worked in hotel/restaurant management.”
This combined experience paved the way for the couple’s future restaurant businesses. In 1992, they opened their first restaurant, Panino, in Manassas. In 2004, they opened Girasole; “my husband is the one who came up with the Girasole name,” Lydia said. They ran both establishments until 2013 when they closed Panino. Now, they focus solely on Girasole with many loyal customers from their Manassas restaurant taking the scenic drive to The Plains, Virginia’s famed horse country.
Lydia shared about a group who recently came to Girasole because they read about their unique olive dish originating from Ascoli Piceno, a town in the Marche region bordering Tuscany. “The guests had lived in Italy and when they heard we had those special olives, they wanted to come,” Lydia said. “The olives are delicious. They’re stuffed, breaded and fried.”
As a nostalgic symbol of Lydia’s Italian roots, an old wooden rolling pin hangs on the wall. “It belonged to my grandmother who brought it from Italy when she came to Ellis Island in 1912,” she said.
When someone loves what they do, it shows. For the Patiernos, their love of Italy is obvious. After all, “when you have a passion, you live it;” Lydia said, “and this is our passion.”
Girasole is located at 4244 Loudoun Ave. in The Plains. For upcoming events, visit their website at girasoleva.com or call 540-253-5501. ML