TAMPA — The black, hulking, Italian-made Acunto oven will stand front-and-center in the restaurant like a 900-degree, fire-breathing pizza dragon. Walk through the angled, 14-foot-tall front door and you can take a seat at the bar on an A-shaped stool.
Or sit in the dining room with custom chairs and tables next to windows repurposed from a 1940s Alabama schoolhouse. While you sip a glass from the 1,000-bottle wine collection, sneak a glimpse at the glass-front salumi case to see the house-made Italian charcuterie curing in-house. Instead, perhaps, you will want to sink into a couch around a fire pit on the patio while slurping long, thin, chewy, handmade pici pasta bathed in lamb neck ragu.
If you’re a friend of owner Michael Stewart or his pal and business partner, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, maybe you can get one of the 12 seats in a secret room accessible only through a hidden passage.
Welcome to Ava.
When the 5,600-square-foot restaurant opens in October after two years in development, chef Joshua Hernandez will bring his Los Angeles culinary pedigree to Ava’s “inspired Italian” menu. Even the yeast for making pizza and breads will descend from a batch bestowed by celebrated chef Ori Menashe of Bestia in Los Angeles, where Hernandez previously worked while using an Acunto oven he named Christine.
“It was my baby,” Hernandez said.
The oven is how Stewart found his chef.
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A maniac about visiting restaurants when he travels, Stewart was in California in January to see the Florida State Seminoles at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the NCAA national championship game. He made a 3 a.m. reservation at Bestia in downtown L.A.’s former warehouse district, and talked his way in at 8:30 p.m. the night before.
Once inside, he asked the pizza chef if he was using an Acunto Napoli oven because he had just bought one. Only 65 are produced each year in Naples. Each $20,000 oven must be carefully cured and then seasoned with gradually increasing fires so that it doesn’t crack when first heated. Acuntos are so efficient that white oak coals left burning overnight can be hot enough to bake bread in the morning.
Hernandez didn’t take Stewart’s question well. The cook told the restaurateur that if the oven was used improperly, it would ruin everything cooked inside and put him out of business.
Stewart slipped Hernandez his card, hoping to talk to him later but not intending to poach him from the restaurant. When the two met, they realized they both attended FSU and that Hernandez was from Sarasota. The chef emailed a proposed menu. Stewart hired him.
The pitch menu, Stewart says, was “aggressive.”
How aggressive? There was an appetizer of pork crudo. Raw pork. Chef Chris Cosentino in San Francisco took heat in 2013 when he created a similar sashimi-style Iberico pork at Incanto. South Howard Avenue restaurant customers, Stewart said, might not be ready for an idea that forward.
What diners will find is Hernandez’s emphasis on simple recipes and letting a handful of fine ingredients mingle and shine.
The lamb neck ragu that covers the long, swirling, pencil-thick hand-rolled pici will have four ingredients. The pizza dough recipe will have double-zero flour, water, salt and yeast. The salumi will be a dry, cured dance of ground pork, fat, salt and a few nitrates.
“Using only a few ingredients, you have nothing to hide behind,” Hernandez said. “If your pork is a little bit funky when it’s fresh, in two months when it’s been hanging at 60 degrees, it’s going to be really funky. You need a nice product and real care and attention to detail. That’s central.”
Stewart said the menu will adapt based on how South Tampa responds. One sauce he ate during a taste test was made with beef tongue. Stewart loved it until he heard what that secret ingredient was.
“Joe (Maddon) loved the fact we were doing beef tongue,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘Oooh, that’s adventurous.’
“We’ll leave that on the menu because it’s adventurous, but you’re walking into an Acunto oven and pizza,” Stewart said. “No matter how aggressive we get on that menu, you are surrounded by that oven and pizza. You have to ask what 500 people in one night would accept. This is not white-tablecloth and progressive pork crudo. This a fun environment where you’ll be surrounded by pizza.”
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Stewart originally intended to create an eclectic, urban seafood and oyster house when he signed the lease on the corner space of the Post SoHo apartment complex on South Howard Avenue across from his 717 South restaurant. His idea was to model the restaurant on Owen’s Fish Camp in Sarasota. He changed course after Tampa restaurateur Gordon Davis opened CopperFish on South Howard Avenue in early 2013.
The concept shifted to Italian after a visit to the award-winning Prato in Winter Park. The open-air dining, chef Brandon McGlamery’s rustic but stylish dishes of pretzel-crusted calamari, Margherita pizzas and shrimp ravioli, and the hip bar scene caught his attention.
More inspiration came from another of Stewart’s favorites, the New Orleans restaurant Domenica by chefs John Besh and Alon Shaya.
Tampa isn’t lacking for well-established Italian restaurants. There is the flamboyantly traditional Donatello Italian Cuisine. Bella’s Italian Cafe offers an intimate neighborhood experience. Bernini serves upscale Italian flavors in the urban setting of Ybor City’s Seventh Avenue.
There was a niche, Stewart said, that Ava could fill by combining the energy of Prato and the food of Domenica.
“I knew it right there,” Stewart said. “Right there. I knew it was right for Howard Avenue.” When he settled on a concept, he shared the idea with Maddon. The two met in 2006 after Maddon took over as manager of the then-Devil Rays and began eating at 717 South. The two share a love of Italian food and affordable wine. They challenge each other to find the best bottles for less than $35. Maddon holds his Thanksmas holiday charity-dinner kickoff parties at 717 each year.
“We’re just best friends,” Stewart said. “It had nothing to do with needing an investor. I was going to do it all myself. He said, ‘Hey, can I jump on board?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Although media reports have painted Ava (pronounced “AH-vah”) as Maddon’s restaurant, his input beyond the financial has been more as a sounding board and taste tester.
“Joe brings awareness to it, but if you go there and the food’s not good, no matter how beautiful that building is, it’s not going to work,” Stewart said. “I know that more than anybody. You have to have all the ingredients. You have to have location, food and the right front-of-house operation.”
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Stewart took over ownership of 717 South in 2004 and nurtured a growing number of celebrity athlete customers who live in South Tampa or visit the area. Derek Jeter is a customer. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have dined there. The entire Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line would eat at 717 every week with then-quarterback Josh Freeman.
That experience inspired Stewart to create a special, hidden dining room for Ava, accessible only through a narrow hallway that leads directly from the parking valet. The door handle is expected to be hidden in a floating frame surrounding a patina mirror.
“The room was my idea,” Stewart said. “It was supposed to be a bathroom. Joshua (the chef) wanted it to be a bread room. No, no, no, no. That was a battle.”
How does someone get a reservation for a secret dining room?
“Probably through me,” he said with a grin.
The decor had to be as dynamic and detail-oriented as the food, Stewart said. For the restaurant’s design, he turned to Josh Charles at Flags of Origin in Atlanta, designer of the Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall and a team member of the firm that worked on The Optimist.
“When you look at the restaurant, everything he has envisioned all looks ... Ava-ish.”
Stewart had a few stipulations. The oven had to be the focus. There had to be an open kitchen. There had to be a private dining room and a cool, hidden smaller room. It also had to have a communal sink where men and women could wash their hands without having to enter the bathroom.
“Kind of like PDQ does, but in a sexier, more-expensive way,” Stewart said.
Ava’s broad concept was for “inspired Italian,” meaning the decor could be influenced by architectural details without having to mimic them directly.
“I fell in love with the fact that when you go into an Italian home, the kitchen is where you have dinner,” Charles said. “It’s the heart and soul of the family. I wanted you to feel like you were at a communal table in a home kitchen.”
Restaurants should tell a story, he said.
“You come in at that corner and you’re greeted by the heart of that restaurant,” he said. “I wanted you to see the fire from the street. I wanted the restaurant to feel alive the minute you walk in.”
Subtle glimpses of the name will be hidden throughout the decor. The bar stools will form the shape of an A with the foot rest serving as the middle slash. The slope of the entrance and the angled hardwood flooring provide a V shape.
“I’m a big believer in composing,” Charles said. “Restaurants are theatrical experiences, but they have to be more reserved in detail because you want customers to figure it out over time, like a good book or a good wine that ages.”
Video and music also will set the tone for Ava’s energy, Stewart said. A beam running through the dining room will hide a screen on which old films of Italian race car drivers or Mediterranean scenes will play.
“We were looking for a niche to provide this type of inspired Italian with warmth and casualness and a sophisticated chef,” Stewart said. “I honestly don’t think Tampa has seen this kind of restaurant yet.”