It all started from a mutual appreciation for good food and wine. Friends Frank Ravalli, a retired foreman on the docks and waterfront supply business owner, and Paul Aghilipour, a 30-year veteran of the restaurant hospitality industry, were chatting late one night at Think Prime steakhouse when they decided to enter the wine business together. Their partnership took off soon thereafter and five years later, they would dream up a unique culinary experience to bring to their beloved hometown: The Blue Grotto Bistro Mediterranean Grill.
Tucked in the corner of the Pacific View Shopping Center on 25th and Western Streets, the Blue Grotto serves up a variety of Mediterranean and Persian cuisines in an oasis-like atmosphere reminiscent of the Grotta Azzura on the coast of Italy’s Island of Capri. The interior features eight variations of blue and relaxing guitar and flute music.
The space was formerly Think Bistro, the first of three Think restaurants opened by Paul’s brother Kashi, before Ravalli bought it in April, hired Paul as his manager, and turned it into a Mediterranean grill inspired by the real Blue Grotto he had seen decades ago in Italy during his Navy service. Ravalli himself was born to Sicilian parents in Brooklyn before moving to San Pedro 50 years ago, and has always had a passion for cooking, especially recipes his mother taught him.
“Frank always says life is about good wine, good food and good friends. We really wanted to create this feeling of relaxation when you first walk in,” says Aghilipour, who was born in Iran, raised in France, and moved to the United States in 1985, when he started working in and managing many five-star hotel restaurants throughout Los Angeles. In San Pedro, he has worked at the old Grand House, the Whale and Ale and Ports O’Call Restaurant.
“San Pedro is a small town, but there are many very good restaurants in town. Every single one has its own characteristics, charm and great food, so being the new kid on the block, you have to become competitive in terms of quality, price and service,” he says.
When Ravalli let him design the menu for the Blue Grotto, Aghilipour combined both his years of culinary experience and personal tastes to create a quality menu that is simple, flame-grilled and diverse.
“We have dishes from Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, and a great selection of Persian kabobs and stews,” he says. “Everything is flame-grilled with olive oil and herbs, and it’s a much healthier way of cooking.”
Aghilipour claims to have already lost 12 lbs. since rolling out the new menu a month ago.
The menu features more than 64 dinner selections, including vegetarian and gluten-free options, a children’s menu, and traditional desserts as well as diverse ones like baklava and saffron rice pudding. There’s also a selection of wines from California as well as imported wines from 20 regions. The Blue Grotto offers a 15 percent dinner discount to veterans and active service members, and also does catering.
“We offer a lot of different types of food — there are no restaurants in San Pedro that make the food we have,” Ravalli says. “So far, everyone has told me how delicious it is. People really have to come and try it. We’re always inviting new flavors that people like, and inquiring about what they like to eat.” His personal favorites are the lamb and veal kabobs, and the California Clam Chowder.
Aghilipour says the Blue Grotto’s kabobs and tapas have proven to be most popular among guests, especially the filet mignon kabob, which brings in regulars several nights a week. The restaurant also has a lunch menu of $10 entrees for professionals looking for a quick and quality bite on their lunch hour.
“People don’t always look for a big meal at lunch time and they don’t always have time for it,” Aghilipour says. “For $10 they get to sit down in a nice environment, and on top of that they get a nice piece of fresh fish, salmon, steak or pasta, scampi, kabobs — everything.”
A grand opening event is in the works, and every Sunday night, glasses of champagne are just $2 and singer Rosie Brand provides musical entertainment. Starting this October, the restaurant will be hosting monthly wine tastings with live opera singing, and Kabob Nights every Thursday with folkloric music and tarot card readings. Wine will be half-off on Tuesday nights.
So far, Aghilipour and Ravalli say business has gone up every week, and the feedback has been great.
“It’s like a culinary adventure of discovery because there are so many different flavors that are new to San Pedro,” Aghilipour says. “It’s a fun environment where you get to meet new people and have good food and wine. I look at it less as a job and more of a passion.” spt
The Blue Grotto is located at 1420 W. 25th St. and is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and dinner Monday through Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.