The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Category: Introductions

Introducing Pronto: Fresh pasta, fast, on the UVa Corner

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You know how a group of enthusiasts can geek out about a fancy piece of equipment? Like cyclists marveling at a bike frame, or car mechanics going nuts over an engine. For some chefs, the toy that really excites them these days is the Arcobaleno AEX18, the so-called Rolls Royce of pasta extruders.

What’s a pasta extruder? Touch a button, and a pasta extruder turns flour and water into fresh pasta, extruding it through metal dies into any of a variety of shapes. Its virtues are many. The quality of the pasta, consistency, and ease of experimentation, just to name a few. But, perhaps the biggest thing that extruders like Arcobaleno’s give chefs is the same thing we all want: time.

For many restaurants, the great obstacle in making fresh pasta is the time it requires. “Agonizingly slow and cumbersome,” one chef described the process. Indeed, the many culinary tasks that a restaurant menu requires often do not leave time to prepare pasta by hand. Even if a restaurant can afford to make fresh pasta for one or two dishes, a whole menu of handmade pasta can be next to impossible.

Enter Arcobaleno, a Pennsylvania-based company founded by a mechanical engineer who, in the late 1980s, left his native Italy for Canada, to build pasta factories. Initially, his company built industrial machines for pasta manufacturers. But, its breakthrough, as far as chefs are concerned, came when it took the same technology behind the industrial machines and created smaller units that fit easily on a countertop. Now, for $5,000 and up, a chef can have a unit that, in an hour, can create twenty pounds of world class, fresh pasta.

Chefs swooned. A fresh pasta revolution was born.

Fresh Pasta, Pronto

Here in Charlottesville, a trio of restaurant industry veterans aims to leverage the virtues of an Arcobaleno machine into a fast-casual, pasta restaurant. Public Fish & Oyster owner Daniel Kaufman and chef Gregg Dionne have teamed with former Parallel 38 chef Johnny Garver to launch Pronto, which opens today on The Corner. Fresh pasta for the masses.

“Fresh pasta is far superior to dried,” says Kaufman. “We want to offer that experience to our guests, using quality, fresh ingredients, and do so fast with great value.”

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Pronto’s Arcobaleno extruder

One of the virtues of the fresh pastas that Arcobaleno’s machines create is that they are a pleasure to eat even with very little sauce. The pasta has a soft, springy texture, and actually tastes of wheat, particularly when you use high-quality semolina flour, like Pronto does.

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But, this does not mean Pronto is taking any short-cuts with its sauces. Together, chefs Garver and Dionne have created a menu of sauces that, as in Italy, showcase the quality of their ingredients. Cacio e pepe. Bolognese. Fra Diavolo. Pesto. And more.

Choose your fresh pasta shape. Choose a sauce. Add toppings if you must. And, you’re good to go.

We sampled a few, and all were excellent. Here’s Kaufman’s favorite, spaghetti with cacio e pepe.

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And, fusilli with pesto.

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Pronto opens today, January 21, in the former Revolutionary Soup location on the UVa Corner. 104 14th St. NW Suite 4. Follow along on their Facebook page.

Introducing Luce: Fresh Pasta To-Go from the Bizou/Bang! Team

When they were young, Mt. Rushmore chef Tim Burgess’s five children would beg him to make the same dish on his days off: fresh pasta. Especially fond of the dish was Burgess’ middle child, Travis, who also came to share his father’s love of the food industry itself. Now 26, chef Travis runs food operations at both of his father’s restaurants — Bizou and Bang! — and is next poised to launch a place inspired by that favorite childhood dish. Offering fresh pasta to-go, Luce will open this month in the takeout window on 2nd Street NW.

Like many in the industry, Travis began by washing dishes, which is how he and his siblings spent summers as young teens, at Bang!. “I would prep goat cheese dumplings and crab potstickers, and scrub piles of pans that would tower above me,” Travis said. “Those summers are where it all started and when I got hooked on the kitchen life.”

During college at George Mason, Travis washed more dishes at Trummers on Main in Clifton, and then suddenly became garde manager when the prior one quit. It was there that Travis decided that this is what he wanted to do for the rest of the life. And so, after graduation, in 2015 Travis scored a gig at one of the nation’s most acclaimed restaurants and best training grounds, FIG, in Charleston. As luck would have it, Travis was assigned to hot appetizers, which was essentially a pasta station, where he cranked out thousands of iterations of dishes like stone crab spaghetti and gnocchi bolognese. “Standing over the pasta pot became my zone,” Travis said.

Travis returned to Charlottesville in 2017, becoming Chef of Bang!. And, despite Bang!’s focus on Asian small plates, Travis’ heart remained with pasta, which he began working into the menu wherever he could, with dishes like ricotta gnocchi in curried sweet potato sauce.

Then, this summer Travis sprung on his father the idea of opening a takeout pasta place and calling it Luce, Italian for “light.” His father did not blink, and immediately pulled up from his iPad an old photo he liked, which he had stowed away in case it ever proved useful. A mural covering a storefront in Madrid, it depicted the beam of a streetlight in yellow paint.

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“The concept of Luce is my dream,” said Travis. “To sell the pasta I’ve been making every day for the last two years, fresh cooked to order.” The idea is for the food to be fresh, fast, and affordable, he says. “Fine dining quality fresh pasta cooked to order for $10 or less,”  Travis said. “Kinda like Bodo’s meets Tavola?”

Travis says there is no secret to his pasta — aside from good quality ingredients: 00 flour and semolina, local organic eggs, and a splash of Spanish olive oil. That’s it. Though the Luce kitchen is tiny, the focus solely on pasta means there will be space to prepare it. Roll and cut fresh pasta by hand, boil it, and toss it in sauce. “It’s just fresh and cooked to order which is a real gamechanger,” Travis said.

At least initially, the size of the menu will match the size of the space: a kale caesar salad, cheesecake for dessert, and just three pasta dishes, like the “Bolo” – pappardelle with pork ragu, toast crumbs, mint, and parmigiano-reggiano. Travis’ favorite is the one that reminds him most of his childhood. The “Cacio” combines tagliatelle, parmigiano-reggiano, olive oil and cracked black pepper, and takes Travis back.  “Just the memory of eating my dad’s pasta was mind-blowing,” Travis said. “When we’ve had menu meetings for Luce, I’ve been licking the container reminiscing about the pasta my dad used to make.”

But, Travis says, his pasta and his father’s are not exactly the same.

“I think mine’s better. Sorry Dad?”

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Luce opens in late October at 110 2nd Street NW. Hours 11 am – 8 pm.

Introducing Kama

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“I’ve never been more excited about opening a restaurant.”

That’s a big claim from someone with a resume like Will Richey, who has launched some of Charlottesville’s most beloved eateries. But to be fair, he says this every time.

This is not to accuse Richey of insincerity. Richey genuinely loves creating new restaurants, and is never more excited than about the next one. Plus, Richey’s projects are worthy of excitement. From conception to execution, no one has delivered as many stellar, novel food concepts to Charlottesville.

His latest is his most unusual yet: an “improvised Japanese” restaurant in a movie theater. Kama celebrates its grand opening this weekend at Violet Crown. Unusual as it may be, Kama has the bones of a place that could rival Richey’s past hits like Brasserie Saison and The Alley Light, a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.

The Origin

Props belong to Bill Banowsky, the Austin-based owner of theater mini-chain Violet Crown, with locations in Austin, Santa Fe, and Charlottesville. Eschewing the cookie-cutter food offerings of many theaters, Banowsky wanted to do something different at Violet Crown. And, he had the good sense to contact Richey, whom he offered full creative license to overhaul the theater’s restaurant.

As luck would have it, Richey had recently been in discussions about working with chef Peter Robertson of Côte-Rôtie – three-time winner of Charlottesville’s Best Food Truck. “I liked Peter immediately,” Richey said. “Within minutes of meeting him, you know that he is a no nonsense, straight shooting guy who knows his craft.” But, after trial runs at two of Richey’s restaurants, Robertson told Richey that his heart was really set on a dream of opening a Japanese restaurant, rather than any of Richey’s existing places.

This conversation sprung to mind months later as Richey toured the Violet Crown space with Banowsky. “As we stood in the dining room, I couldn’t help but notice the clean and simple lines, and a large fabric print with a duck pattern on it on the back wall,” Richey said. “This made me think of an Asian influenced restaurant, which made me think of my conversation with Peter.” Richey contacted Roberston, who leaped at the opportunity – and they were off and running.

The Space   

Richey’s role was to design, build, and staff the restaurant, and Richey beams about the team who helped execute his vision. “The chefs and restaurant people often get all the glory,” Richey said, “but the very talented artisans in our area who build these restaurants deserve every bit as much credit.” 

For design, Richey called on architect Stephanie Williams, who helped design Prime 109. “Our goal was to design a cohesive aesthetic that was respectful to the existing theater architecture,” said Williams. “We employed mainly darker neutral colors with shou sugi ban (Japanese burnt wood) accents and added pops of bold color.” KB contractors did the build-out, and Lost Mountain Woodcraft handled wood finishes, bar and table tops. 

The result? “The restaurant came out far better then I had imagined it could,” Richey said. “It is beautiful – an elegant place to repose in.”

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

The Chef

Côte-Rôtie fans will be thrilled that Richey has given a brick-and-mortar home to Robertson. Even from a tiny food truck kitchen, the Culinary Institute of America graduate and former owner of an acclaimed Hamptons restaurant was already one of the most creative chefs in Charlottesville. Now that he has a full kitchen, all kinds of new equipment, and a expanded budget for exotic ingredients, look out.

“Bigger kitchen, new toys, and top tier ingredients, like Japanese uni, are what make this job fun,” says Robertson.

Aside from brief stints helping to launch two Charlottesville restaurants, Robertson has  worked for no one but himself and his wife since 2006. So, while reporting to a boss may be an adjustment, Robertson actually cites the chance to work with Richey as one of the reasons he took the job. “His ability to problem solve creatively is something I really admire and enjoy being a part of,” said Robertson. “Building restaurants is extremely stressful but also incredibly gratifying, so the opportunity to learn from Wilson [Richey] was a big part of me taking this job.”

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The Food

Improvised Japanese is how Robertson describes the menu of primarily small plates, with a few larger options as well. Why “improvised”? Well, as much as Robertson has eaten, cooked, and studied Japanese cuisine, he has never actually been to Japan or trained under a Japanese chef. “We are basically trying to cook the food we love with as much respect and honor to the cuisine that has inspired us,” says Robertson, who regularly included riffs on Japanese food in his truck’s ever-changing menu.

And yet, despite the bigger kitchen and new toys to play with, Robertson says that the beauty of Japanese cuisine is keeping it simple: “taking great ingredients and manipulating them as little as possible.” King Salmon Teriyaki, for example, is simply grilled over wood and served with steamed rice and bok choy. 

That said, there are manipulations, too. Ever heard of tsukudani? Here’s how it works. Start with kombu, a type of seaweed most commonly used to make dashi, the stock for many Japanese soups and noodle dishes. For tsukudani, Robertson takes leftover kombu from making dashi, slices it thinly, and slowly simmers it again in shoyu, mirin, and red rice wine vinegar. The result he uses as an umami-rich garnish for a trio of sashimi.

When pressed for personal menu favorites, Robertson balked. “The menu changes almost every day so typically the new dishes are what I’m excited about,” said Robertson. “We get fish and different produce almost every day, and it’s those products that excite me.” During the soft opening period, Robertson says, guests really seemed to enjoy Kama’s handmade udon, noodles made from a dough with organic flour, which is kneaded for a long time to give it its chewy texture.  The noodles are served in broths of locally sourced beef and pork, and topped with a local egg. 

Sous chef David Morgan, who was Executive Chef of Tavern & Grocery before cooking at Prime 109, sounds like a kid in a candy store in his new environment.”I’m just excited to be learning a new cuisine and techniques,” said Morgan. “And I love that we are working with the best ingredients available,” like Bluefin otoro from Spain, kanpachi from Hawaii, uni from Japan, and wild king salmon from Washington.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

The Bar

Manning the bar is Mike Stewart, a Nick Crutchfield protege who got is break at age 25 when, as an electrician looking for a career change, responded to a Craiglist ad for a new Charlottesville restaurant called Commonwealth. Looking back, he can hardly believe his luck in stumbling upon a mentor like Crutchfield. “25 is a late start to make a career shift from tradesman to barman and really could have only been facilitated by a talented-beyond-belief mentor and friend like Nick,” said Stewart. “I soaked up every bit of knowledge I could from him, and got hooked on the quest for knowledge, history, tradition and all of the wonderful things that make being behind the bar a great privilege.”

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

At Kama, Stewart says, his focus is hospitality. “Passion without pretentiousness is contagious,” said Stewart, whose main aim is that everyone feel welcome, not intimidated. A novice in Japanese food and culture, Stewart has enjoyed being a student again, learning a new cuisine, and how to build a bar program around it. “I’ve taken everything I have learned and adapted it,” said Stewart. “Like notes in music, the tradition of crafting a cocktail is the same. With those notes you can play blues, jazz, country or whatever. That’s how I’ve approached this new palate of flavors.”

Take the “Tokyo” – a blend of a Boulevardier and Manhattan, with Japanese inspiration – combining the “familiar with the unfamiliar.” Stewart blends Suntory Toki Whisky, Aperol, Cocchi Rosa, grapefruit bitters, and St. Elizabeth allspice dram. His favorite way to serve it is two versions side-by-side – one made fresh and the other aged for 28 days in a charred oak barrel, where, he says, flavors become a well-rounded sum of their parts.

On the left, a barrel-aged Tokyo. On the right, an un-aged Tokyo:

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Kama’s Grand Opening is this Saturday, August 31. The restaurant is located at 200 West Main St, in Violet Crown. Hours are 5 – 10 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations here.