A day just feels different when it begins with a great breakfast sandwich. Fortunately, Charlottesville has no shortage of them, especially at Belle, the Belmont bakery and café run by the Shanesy brothers: chef John and baker Scott.
There are six numbered breakfast sandwiches at Belle, all delicious, but the most satisfying is the first: Breakfast Sandwich #1. Folded egg topped with a sausage patty and a slice of melting American cheese. As listed on the menu, the sandwich comes on house brioche, which is delicious. It’s baked by Scott Shanesy, after all. But, the sandwich reaches even greater heights on the bakery’s English muffin, which Belle calls “the house specialty.” Yes, it’s special. Like a sausage egg McMuffin on steroids, there’s no more delicious way to power up the day.
It might seem odd to go somewhere specifically for a grilled cheese, but the royal treatment that Petit MarieBette gives the humble staple of pool snack bars and children’s menus makes it destination-worthy. Will Darsie’s attention to detail elevates the sandwich with Pennsylvania cheddar and Alpine gruyere on the bakery’s own sourdough. A thin layer of Duke’s mayo on the outside of the bread before grilling seals the deal with color, crispness, and flavor. When a grilled cheese craving creeps, the PMB Grilled cheese satisfies like none other in town.
Ever since we heard that food super-couple Carolyn Stromberg Leasure and Zack Leasure were relocating from D.C. to Charlottesville, we have eagerly awaited what they might do here. In D.C., Carolyn ran Righteous Cheese, the acclaimed artisanal cheese shop in Union Market, while Zack was Executive Sous Chef of Tail Up Goat, helping it earn a Michelin star and nod as one of the country’s best new restaurants. Both were favorite stops on D.C. visits.
After arriving in Charlottesville in 2017, they dabbled in the idea of a cheese food truck, Carolyn did pop-up cheese tastings, and Zack spent time at several restaurants and also served as Executive Chef of Big Kitchen Hospitality Group. All the while, though, we hoped that they might join forces for their own place in Charlottesville. Next month, they will do just that, when their grilled cheese shop ooey gooey crispy opens in CODE.
It is a product of two great passions: food and Charlottesville.
A Passion For Food
After working in restaurants in high school and college, Carolyn tried the normal job thing, but couldn’t shake the lure of the food industry. She worked in several fine dining restaurants before embracing her true passion: cheese, which was the very first word she said as a child. Opened in 2012, her artisanal cheese shop and wine bar Righteous Cheese offered 100+ cut-to-order artisanal cheeses and flights of wine and beer pairings. She also made grilled cheeses so good that USA Today called them among the nation’s best.
Zack’s entry to the food world was Charlottesville’s Vivace before he set off for D.C.. There he found a job at one of the city’s most influential restaurants, Komi, which was consistently ranked the #1 restaurant in the city during his tenure. “What I learned there forever shaped my sensibilities on food and, even more so, on hospitality,” said Zack. Next, Zack was Sous Chef at Red Apron Butchery and Osteria Morini before joining a team of Komi veterans to open Tail Up Goat, a restaurant devoted to whole animal butchery, bread baking, pasta making, and preservation.
A Passion for Charlottesville
Even before they moved to Charlottesville in 2017, Carolyn and Zack had been set on it as their forever home. “We had visited Charlottesville many times, both to see family and to enjoy the outdoors, and had met many people in the food scene,” said Carolyn. “We were so welcomed and really felt the community of what it would be like to live here.” Another plus was family life, with two young boys. “We wanted our kids to enjoy the same kind of outdoor freedom that we had growing up – just exploring the woods,” said Carolyn. “Now that we’ve been here several years, we feel totally enmeshed in the community and our kids definitely spend their days in the outdoors.”
From their first day in Charlottesville, Carolyn and Zach immersed themselves. “We are completely committed to both being a part of the community and doing our part to contribute to it,” said Carolyn.
Introducing ooey gooey cripsy
And, what will their contribution be?
Grilled cheese. “It is the ultimate comfort food,” said Carolyn. “We eat it all the time and, though anyone can make grilled cheese, we believe it deserves the same level of thoughtful attention as the dishes we crafted for years in our fine dining backgrounds.” That attention especially took off when Carolyn would bring home amazing cheeses from Righteous Cheese, and she and Zack would make grilled cheese sandwiches, experimenting with flavors and textures.
Years of trial-and-error from two talented and passionate food artisans is about to pay off for Charlottesville.
“It starts with ingredients,” said Zack. Sourdough bread from Albemarle Baking Company, high-quality cheeses from sustainable farms, and local and sustainable meats. “From there, it’s all about the extra attention and love,” said Zack. Buttering the bread all the way to the edges to ensure uniform color and crispiness; shredding rather than slicing the cheese to achieve the right gooey interior at the same moment the outside is shatteringly crisp; allowing the grilled cheese to rest before cutting so that the cheese comes together just so. “These are details that may seem inconsequential, but have been tried and tested in our kitchen,” Zack said.
At ooey gooey crispy, guests will be able to create their own custom grilled cheeses from a menu of select ingredients. Choose your cheese from Fontina Val d’Aosta, cheddar, gruyère, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or brie. Choose butter from classic, sage butter, parm butter, or truffle butter. And choose toppings from crushed potato chips, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, bacon marmalade, picnic ham, or Mike’s hot honey.
Better yet is a menu of house favorite combinations, like brie, truffle butter, and crushed potato chips, or Zack’s favorite, Fontina and sage butter. “We use traditional Fontina Val d’Aosta, which is robust and funky, but when it melts, it changes a bit – mellows out and gets buttery too,” said Zack. “The classic Italian alpine cheese paired with the woodsy herbaceousness of the sage butter exemplifies the northern Italian flavors I love dearly. Plus it’s just so damn good.”
For lighter meals, there is also a menu of “big salads,” such as Carolyn’s favorite, the Blustery Fall Salad, with roasted celery root, arugula, celery hearts, lemon-soaked currants, toasted hazelnuts, brie, and sherry vinaigrette. “With those bites of brie, toasted hazelnut, and currants, it takes it from sad-salad-lunch to something super luscious and indulgent without being heavy,” said Carolyn, who likes to pair the salad with Creamy Tomato Soup. “It’s the best tomato soup I’ve ever had, and it has the added bonus of being vegan,” said Carolyn.
Ooey gooey crispy opens in November. Meanwhile, you can visit here to learn more about the project, help them get off the ground, and win rewards like their own cookbook, free grilled cheese, and more.