Noto’s cooks up changes with celebrity chefs


Celebrity chefs Alessandro Guerrazzi, left, and Robert Hesse are an integral part of the extensive expansion plan at Noto’s Old World Italian Dining. Courtesy Terpstra Photography

Noto’s Old World Italian Dining is closed for the next several days, as the restaurant makes some changes to its menu, kitchen and dining facility.

The upgrades will support a new direction for the 30-year-old, family-owned restaurant, 6600 28th St. SE, which recently hired not one but two new chefs and said it is ready to put Noto’s on the map — and possibly even open a hotel.

“We’ve learned a lot and we are at a certain level, and we want to go to the next level,” Noto’s co-owner Tony Noto said.

To make that happen, Noto’s hired Alessandro Guerrazzi, a classically trained Italian chef originally from Genoa, Italy, with more than 30 years of experience, to serve as its executive restaurant chef.

Guerrazzi has cooked for Julia Child and other well-known celebrities. He most recently served as chef de cuisine at Michael’s Catering in Santa Barbara, California, and before that as executive chef for the Hard Rock Café Rome.

To serve as its executive corporate chef, Noto’s hired celebrity chef Robert Hesse, who participated in seasons five and six of the reality show “Hell’s Kitchen,” hosted by Gordon Ramsay, and was most recently the assistant executive chef at Eldorado Casino Resort in Reno, Nevada.

Noto said as the restaurant was reviewing possible candidates to take over for its former executive chef, two candidates rose to the top of the heap, and it became impossible to make a choice between them.

He said they launched their search with the goal of finding an authentic Italian celebrity chef who would commit to living in Grand Rapids.

“We were looking for one chef, but got two,” he said.

While Guerrazzi and Hesse will work together on some things with the common goal of elevating Noto’s to the next level in culinary fare, they each have distinct roles at the restaurant.

Guerrazzi will be responsible for the restaurant and banquet facilities, and Hesse will be taking on a more entrepreneurial role.

Hesse will help Noto’s open and operate a variety of concept restaurants, develop a small Italian market on-site and will host the chef’s table at the Cellar, which he said would serve as his playground.

“I’m a conceptual chef,” Hesse said. “Basically, the difference between me and another chef is I come up with concepts and how to bring them to fruition. When people say, ‘What is your food style?’ I can do a plethora of things, but I am good at finding the need, the void, and finding what a community is about and where they are going.”

Hesse said his focus in Grand Rapids is on the 25-to-45-year-old dining crowd. He said that age group is looking for “trendy, hip, urban-esque” places where they can go on a regular basis and not just for a special night out, and with a price point and casual atmosphere that is welcoming to everyone from the “average Joe to the guy in the three-piece suit.”

He also said this is a group of well-traveled individuals who have been to great restaurants all over the country and globe, and they want those same experiences in their own backyard; that’s what he is planning to create.

“When you look at the food world, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Marco Pierre White, they are opening barbeque places, burger places, grilled cheese stands, these one-concept ventures. I’m going to take this one medium and do variations of it. I’m going to make it chef inspired and put face to plate. You know it’s handmade and hand done.”

While some of the concept restaurants will open in greater Grand Rapids, Hesse and the Noto family said they also are looking at other cities in Michigan, such as Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, and eventually could even go beyond the state’s borders, especially with franchise opportunities.

Noto also said he sees even bigger developments down the road — in the form of a 56-room hotel that would sit next to Noto’s on its five-acre property.

“There is a dream for a hotel,” he said.

In response, Hesse said, “Dreams are our responsibility to make come true or you are just a dreamer. This will happen.”

Hesse expects the first concept restaurant to open by the end of this year and said making that happen is imperative to him staying in Grand Rapids.

Hesse also is excited to offer the only celebrity chef table in Grand Rapids at Noto’s.

“The Cellar, that is my playground. That will be where you can get an unexpected meal,” he said.

Noto’s will be building out space near its lobby over the next several months and turning it into an Italian market, where guests can pick up a small selection of items to go.

“It will be like the mom-and-pop stores in Italy,” Guerrazzi said.

The list of available items includes breads, pastas, gelato, olive oil, sauces, cheeses and Italian cookies and pastries made by Noto’s executive pastry chef Bill Metzger. The market also will offer cakes for all occasions. A selection of gift baskets will be available, as well.

“The market will be operational by the end of the year,” Noto’s co-owner Tom Noto said.

When Noto’s reopens on June 2, it will have a new menu created by Guerrazzi and Hesse, and a refreshed, modern look.

The restaurant is eager to get new and returning guests through its doors to check out its new direction.

“If you haven’t been to Noto’s in a while, come on back,” Tony Noto said. “These chefs are at another level, and we want to showcase that and bring it to the community. We feel they will be significant players in creating this fabric we are involved with and have grown from.”

While Noto’s still will offer the “best old world Italian dining,” it also hopes by year’s end to be leading the culinary scene in West Michigan with its new developments and drawing visitors to the area. 

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