“I’m sorry, I can’t stay long. I’ve gotta run service tonight.”
Luciana Giangrandi says this as she sweeps into Walrus Rodeo, the slouchingly chic Italian restaurant she owns with her husband, Alex Meyer. Tucked away in a strip mall in Little Haiti, far from the glitter of South Beach, the place has barely been open for two months but is already booked like Boia De, the couple’s four-year-old spot across the parking lot.
It’s not that Giangrandi and Meyer are hard up for staff at either of their restaurants. Since Boia De earned a Michelin star last summer, proof that you don’t need big names or New York backing to thrive in the city, they've received more qualified applicants than they can possibly hire. But while diners may be drawn to the distinct vibe of their two restaurants—the inventive food, the unusual wines, the immediate sense of intimacy—the couple believes that leading by example is why they’ve found that rarest of things in Miami: sustained restaurant success.
“We work harder than anyone else,” Giangrandi says without an ounce of boast or bravado, explaining why tonight, instead of relaxing on her couch or enjoying a plate of wings at Flannigan’s, she will be waiting tables.
The team, they see us doing everything they do in the grind, and that's important. I mean, we're talented, but don't underestimate how much you need to work.
It all started with a fried chicken sandwich
Giangrandi and Meyer's rise in Miami is a case study in determination and improvisation, a lesson in how what seems like a detour from a dream can, with some grit and creativity, become the foundation for fulfilling it. They met 10 years ago in New York City, both accomplished chefs who’d cut their teeth at some of America’s top Italian restaurants. She’d trained in Italy and worked at Scarpetta and Carbone. He’d helped open Animal and Son of a Gun in Los Angeles before heading east and ending up at Eleven Madison Park. After a stint together in L.A., in 2017 they moved to Miami, Giangrandi’s hometown, believing it to be a less-saturated market than Los Angeles for opening a restaurant of their own.
Giangrandi and Meyer's rise in Miami is a case study in determination and improvisation, a lesson in how what seems like a detour from a dream can, with some grit and creativity, become the foundation for fulfilling it.
An Italian spot was their shared goal. The small trailer they found at the Midtown Garden Center, however, lent itself better to a different concept. “Alex kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s no good tacos,’ and sometimes you just find a space that’s appropriate,” Giangrandi says. “It had a plancha and a fryer, and what do you do with that? You make tacos.”
The taco stand became La Pollita, the couple’s first foray into the Miami food scene. The Mexico City-style tacos were an instant hit, but the truck’s main draw was a fried chicken sandwich they’d first created for a catering gig back in L.A. While the crispy breast topped with crushed avocado, herbed cabbage slaw, and Valentina aioli put the couple on the map, responsible for the long lines and whispery buzz, it was about as far from the handmade pasta the two had come to the city eager to cook.
Two years in, in 2019, they made a seemingly risky gamble, betting that the cult following they’d developed around affordable finger food would lure people in for upscale Italian. Not only were they correct, as fans of their cooking flooded into Boia De, but the sandwich has remained a slyly vital piece of their business. During COVID, for instance, they offered it as a delivery-only special, crediting it as keeping Boia De afloat and allowing them to build the in-house experience that eventually earned them their Michelin star.
Getting that star wasn’t at all what Giangrandi and Meyer had set out to do. And while Michelin’s reviewers are notoriously anonymous, when the guide announced it was coming to Miami, they knew at the very least they’d get a shot.
“We didn’t really think about it for ourselves, since we’re more of a casual sort of place,” Meyer says. “We were popular, so we assumed they’d come, but I don’t think we knew during the interim when they were doing it.”
The couple didn’t even know they’d been invited to Michelin’s announcement ceremony until they were alerted they might have an email in their spam folders. Even when they did see they were on the proverbial guest list, a star wasn’t even remotely assumed.
“We didn’t know what an invite means,” Meyer says. “It’s, like, a gala? Tthat could be anything. I was in Orlando so we almost didn’t go. Fortunately, we did.”
Creating a culture of commitment
While opening Boia De, Giangrandi and Meyer often found resumés where applicants had never been at a job longer than eight months, a reminder that high turnover is as much of a challenge in Miami’s restaurant industry as exorbitant AC bills. How, they wondered, could they create a work environment that made people want to stay and learn?
“We have a small kitchen, there's only like four stations you can work,” says Giangrandi. “At most places only the sous chef or the chef will break down fish. If you work at Boia, you are gonna learn to break down fish and that's gonna be something that you get to practice on.”
While cross training might not seem to be the best for operations and consistency, it offered a means of preventing employee burnout, which hampers operations even more in the long run.
“You want the same best pasta chef on sauté five nights a week,” she continues. “But in another sense, it’s a really exhausting station, and if you give other people the opportunity, they’re more excited to be there. So we treat it like a teaching thing, and part of our investment in the kitchen side is giving people these opportunities.”
End result: In four years of operating with this model, the restaurant hasn’t had a member of its kitchen staff leave voluntarily who didn’t move on to either management or opening their own restaurant.
We build a culture where people stay and learn and get better. The biggest compliment we get is when people say our staff seems happy.
The weight of expectations
The upsides of earning a Michelin star are obvious, but it comes with the burden of heightened expectations. It’s easy to under promise and over deliver; it’s virtually impossible to do that once you have a Michelin star.
“You used to just walk into this parking lot and not know what you’re getting into,” says Meyer. “The bar is higher now.”
“We’ve stopped booking reservations outside,” adds Giangrandi. “We were starting to get guests who came in to have this Michelin experience and they’re sitting in a parking lot in the heat. We felt like we weren’t delivering on that expectation.”
This is welcome news for fans of the restaurant who balk at the idea of having to book a table a month out. Every outdoor seat—along with six at the bar—are open to walk-ins, allowing them to operate as both a fine-dining destination and a neighborhood staple.
That pressure has carried over to the opening of Walrus Rodeo, which debuted to great fanfare and equal excitement during the height of Art Basel.
“When we opened Boia De there were no expectations, there was no fan base other than our taco truck,” says Meyer. “Now it’s higher pressure. People are expecting something at Walrus Rodeo, and we don't want to do that. We wanted to do something that felt familiar, but different enough that it's its own place.”
To accomplish this, they partnered with chef Jeff Maxwell, who Meyer worked with at Brad Kilgore’s Alter. As the restaurant’s executive chef, he created a small menu filled with the same kind of imaginative twists on Italian classics that guests came to love at Boia De: mustard green lasagna with lamb ragu, cabbage carbonara with pancetta and fermented hollandaise, and a brick oven that sits as the centerpiece of the kitchen's stage, cranking out wood-fired pies that many say are already among Miami’s best. By taking much of the workload from Meyer and Giangrandi, both places can operate at their peak.
“People have approached us about a ton of stuff,” says Giangrandi. “This was the only one that seemed realistic. We know the neighborhood and it’s manageable enough because we could go back and forth.”
Maintaining a marriage and a Michelin Star
To spend time with Giangrandi and Meyer, who have an affable and affectionate nature with one another, is to come away impressed that a decade in high-octane business together has not been a hindrance to sustaining a successful marriage and home life. Though getting time to yourself might seem impossible when running a business, the couple have learned how to complement each other’s styles, and schedule work so they’re not together 24/7.
“When we opened Boia we would do all the prep in the morning, then work service every night,” Meyer says. “One of us would work the a.m. shift, the other one worked the p.m. shift. We learned strengths and weaknesses, division of labor, etc.,” says Meyer.
“Certain roles we’re better at than others. And going home, we can still talk about work, but at some point, someone says, ‘We’re done with work today.’”
Most nights, he says, falling asleep is the main event of the evening, though the couple has also taken to spending quiet nights together watching Forged in Fire, a History Channel competition show between blacksmiths and metal workers that has some surprising parallels to the restaurant world.
“There's a similar vibe where there's a process, there's a technique, and there's a formula to making good food,” he says. “There's a formula to making a good piece of metal. And it's just fun to watch other makers and creatives doing their thing at a high level.”
Vacations are still a ways off. Aside from a trip to Montreal with Freddy and Danielle Kaufman from Proper Sausages, the pair was hard pressed to think of the last big trip they took. “I’ve said I’d like to go to Iceland,” Meyer says whimsically. “You know, just clean, brisk air…”
Nice as that hypothetical arctic glacier may sound, for now he and Giangrandi remain focused on making their spots standouts in the competitive world of Miami Italian restaurants. Much like they ask of their staff, they’re mastering what they’re doing before moving on to other things—leading by example and, in the process, carving out a new model for what thriving in Miami looks like.
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We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant’s story can help or inspire another. We’re proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.