For some restaurants, the shift to the Culture of Takeout was a challenge. Not all foods and experiences translate well to disposable containers.
One food type made for takeout, though, are sandwiches, and Little Star chef and co-owner Ryan Collins is a sandwich fiend. Collins’ special affinity for a classic Italian sub, in fact, was a spark behind his interest in launching a sandwich shop out of Little Star. While Charlottesville has a few Italian sub riffs that Collins enjoys, nothing, he says, can scratch the itch like the original.
For an original, perhaps the most distinguishing factor is bread. There is great bread all over Charlottesville, but not much, if any, of the signature style for subs at Italian delis: hoagies with a crunchy exterior and soft, squishy exterior. For that, Collins turned of course to Charlottesville’s king of bread, Gerry Newman, at Little Star’s neighbor Albemarle Baking Company. Newman had already collaborated with Collins on pan estrella for Little Star’s instant classic pan tomate. Now, Newman’s bakery has fine-tuned a bread just for Little Star’s new sandwich program. “We listened to what Ryan was looking for and were always open to the changes necessary to improve the crust, crumb, and taste for the sandwich he had in mind,” said Newman. “We landed on a seeded semolina loaf that can hold an incredible Italian sandwich.”
Little Star’s Italians come either mild or spicy. The mild is the Fiat: mortadella, mild salami, marinated tomato, lettuce, onion, aged pecorino, and house dressing on ABC semolina Italian loaf. The spicy, the Alfa Spider, replaces mild salami with spicy.
The Bugatti is like the love child of a French Dip and classic pork and broccoli rabe. Braised beef cheeks, broccoli, aged pecorino, and hot peppers are stuffed into an ABC semolina loaf with a side of beef jus.
The Meep Meep is roasted cauliflower, Romesco, apricot mostarda, arugula, and onion, again on the custom ABC semolina Italian loaf.
Daily soups will change often. Salads include a Caesar and a salad of house made mozzarella.
Opening tomorrow, January 13, Little Star’s takeout sandwich shop will operate Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30 am – 7:30 pm. Meanwhile, Little Star’s regular menu will remain available for on premises dining Thursday through Saturday.
When the James Beard Foundation cancelled its annual awards this year, it explained:
The choice comes as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle. The Awards’ usual positive impact on restaurants and chefs’ businesses will likely not be fully realized due to the current state of the industry, with many restaurants closed permanently or temporarily or operating at minimal capacity.
So, why does this site continue to celebrate restaurants, even as they struggle to survive?
More to the point, restaurants’ heroic efforts in 2020 warrant celebration. Even while on the brink of survival, restaurants brought moments of light into dark lives of seclusion. When a pandemic blocked the usual outlets for restaurateurs’ passion to spread happiness, they just built other outlets. As they did so, gifts from the Culture of Takeout came in phases.
First, there was the comfort of familiarity. When a pandemic uprooted our lives, continued access to old favorites assured us that not everything had changed. For all the havoc COVID-19 wrought, it would not take away our go-to Bodo’s order.
Next came the excitement of new things, like the chance to enjoy meals at home from restaurants that never offered takeout before, and even new dishes created just for the Culture of Takeout. The dreams of Ivy Inn regulars came true when the Greek-American family behind it finally began selling Greek food unlike any Charlottesville has seen.
The man behind it is Michael Ketola. Even before Ketola transitioned from MAS’s sous chef to head chef three years ago, the dish bore his stamp. Ketola is so tied to it that his bio once read simply: “I cook shrimp good.” Over his fourteen years at MAS, Ketola has cooked upwards of 300,000 shrimp.
Like many great dishes, the gambas are a marvel of simplicity. Ketola credits MAS founder Tomas Rahal with its origin, and says it captures well the Spanish approach to food on which Rahal built the restaurant: source great products, and treat them with care.
Every detail matters, beginning with the best shrimp they can find: wild-caught Gulf shrimp from the same source as long as Ketola can remember. From there, there is no brine. No marinade. Not even any seasoning. All Ketola does is split the back of the shrimp to remove the entrails, and they are ready to cook.
The shrimp sear on MAS’s 375 degree Fahrenheit parilla for about a minute per side, in nothing more than a drizzle of garlic infused olive oil. That’s it.
How can such a simple preparation stir such strong reactions? Ketola cites two keys. One is cooking the shrimp in their shells, a Catalan technique which helps them develop and retain flavor. The other is the shrimps’ unusual size. Typically, the largest shrimp at a grocery or seafood market can be about 16-20 shrimp per pound. At MAS, they are 10-15 shrimp per pound. That size, Ketola says, helps them stay plump as they cook, without drying out.
“No Short Cuts”
If the shrimp are a model of MAS’s simplicity, the alioli with which they are served manifests another MAS guiding principle. Patience. “One of the foundations of everything we prepare at MAS is taking the time to do it the right way,” said Ketola. “No short cuts.” For the alioli, MAS has long followed the same slow, laborious process, combining in a stand-mixer olive oil, egg yolks, garlic, lime juice, sea salt, and black pepper. The use of a stand-mixer rather than a blender may be what most distinguishes MAS’s alioli from other house-made versions. While the high speeds of blenders and food processors can make alioli more quickly, they also create friction and heat, which can begin to cook the egg yolks and alter the alioli’s texture. Whereas a blender can make alioli in seconds, MAS’s alioli requires a full twenty minutes in the hand mixer, or more.
The process begins with egg yolks from Forrest Green Farm’s organic free-range chickens. “Egg yolks are key to a nice alioli,” said Ketola, who lights up when describing Forrest Green Farm’s. “They are the brightest orange and yellow yolks I have ever seen.”
In the bowl of a hand mixer, the egg yolks stir slowly with lime juice and pressed garlic. Next, Ketola gradually adds olive oil, just a little at a time. MAS uses a rich, full bodied blend of picual and arbequina varieties from Los Aljibes Estate, in Albacete. The intensity and bitterness of the picual balance with the freshness and sweetness of the arbequina.
About half-way through the stirring, after the initial emulsification has taken hold, Ketola adds salt and pepper. Finally, he adds small splashes of water as needed for a smooth and creamy result.
One Saturday in May, the refrigerator bore the surplus of the prior night’s takeout MAS feast. As was common in 2020, lunch became an exercise in assembling products of the Culture of Takeout. Shrimp? Alioli? Shrimp salad of course.
To serve, it needed nothing more than Gerry Newman’s butter rolls from Albemarle Baking Company, one of Charlottesville’s best vehicles for delivering deliciousness. Like Newman himself, the rolls have no desire for the spotlight, with a pillowy texture and delicate flavor that allow a sandwich’s filling to shine uninterrupted.
2020 tested Charlottesville restaurants like nothing ever has. In response to a harrowing pandemic, the passion and resilience of our restaurants yielded not just bright spots in dark lives but also new experiences that never existed before. None was more delicious than that shrimp sandwich in May.
Each December we celebrate the Charlottesville food year by asking chefs and others in the industry: what was the best thing you ate all year? Here are picks from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015. And, below are this year’s picks in our food community’s annual tribute to Charlottesville’s bounty. Meanwhile, check back soon for The Charlottesville 29 pick for 2020 Dish of the Year.
Dylan Allwood (Tavola)
Wonton Soup from Chimm. “The shrimp wontons are light and delicious, but the depth of flavor in the broth is amazing.”
Jason Becton (MarieBette)
Grilled Pork appetizer from Chimm. “I keep wanting to ask Jay Pun for the marinade recipe, but I’m too embarrassed to ask.”
Mitchell Beerens (Lampo)
Food from Local Farmers, Local Artisans, and Local Restaurants. “There is no restaurant industry, at least not the way we know it in Charlottesville, to go back to when we come out the other end of this pandemic without our local artisans and farmers. I choose these three, as a group, as the best thing I ate all year: local farmers, local artisans, and the restaurants that choose to support them no matter how big or small.”
Jose de Brito (Fleurie)
Bread from Brasserie Saison. “I suppose like most people this year we did not dine out much. Once was at Brasserie Saison and we were served a slice of bread that reminded me of Poilane bakery back in France; and although the French metaphor ‘long comme un jour sans pain’ (long as a day without bread) is now for me a memory of the past, I to this day have the highest respect for bread and breadmaking. I am not sure who made this bread, but if he/she reads this note, your bread is excellent.” Note: the bread is made by Rachel De Jong of Cou Cou Rachou.
Ryan Collins (Little Star)
Dumpling Soup from Sussex Farm. “That soup is perfect. Simple broth and dumpling. All the sauces and condiments please.”
Patrick Evans (MarieBette)
Spicy Ramen from Sussex Farm. “I look forward to Saturdays for this. The perfect COVID-ready meal to take home and heat up when you want it. Jennifer Naylor’s broth is so rich and flavorful, and the spicy ramen leaves you feeling warm and satisfied. If this ramen is too spicy for you, try the delicious dumpling soup, a full bodied bone broth soup, with delicious bite-sized dumplings–perfect to share with the whole family.”
Laura Galgano (Blue Moon Diner)
Cavolo Nero from Lampo. “Half of my family lives in Harrisonburg. The other half in Richmond. This makes Charlottesville the natural meeting place, and this year, we gathered for my father’s birthday in the safest way we could figure: we ordered from Lampo, and ate from our own boxes on the Diner’s rooftop. In true Italian family fashion, I ordered an enormous amount of food, and was lucky enough to have an extra shredded kale salad at the end. This salad is the most delightful balance of textures and flavors that completely coats your taste buds, from sweet to savory, with a hint of heat. It’s the perfect size for a side dish, but I could quite easily see myself eating a giant bowl of it. Lampo excels at highlighting the glory of good ingredients, and simple Italian cooking.”
Craig Hartman (The BBQ Exchange)
Coconut Cake from C&O. “We did a lot of take out this year, and I can’t get past the coconut cake from C&O. Dean did not get a PPP loan and literally did everything for takeout with a very small team. We were blown away by so many of the meals we received from the likes of MAS Tapas, Conmole, Palladio, and more, but that darn coconut cake. So perfectly prepared and so delicious.”
The Captain with Cold Brew from Corner Juice. “We didn’t get out much this year but the best thing I enjoyed regularly was The Captain with cold brew at Corner Juice. Corner Juice has been my go-to this year and I am impressed every time.”
Kathryn Matthews (Iron Paffles & Coffee)
Bánh Mì from Vu Noodles. “While in Vietnam, I tried phenomenal bánh mì sandwiches, and the fact that Julie can surpass them using tofu is nothing other than extraordinary. Complete with crisp baguette, creamy mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, and fresh cucumber, it’s absolute perfection. I recommend ordering two (I always do) and try an iced mango green tea while you’re at it.”
Dean Maupin (C&O)
Beef Tartare at The Alley Light. “I also had the dealer’s choice that night, a cocktail I can’t remember the name of, but it had a egg white floater and was garnished with grapefruit. It was really remarkable.”
Robin McDaniel (The Alley Light)
Croque Monsieur at Belle. “Prosciutto cotto, eggs, crusty bread, and Mornay sauce all work in harmony in a classic but difficult to execute dish. However, my favorite addition is the salad which features two of my favorite greens: little gem and watercress. The salad is lightly dressed with a delicious roasted garlic dressing. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the cinnamon brioche, which is another favorite of mine. In addition to a great menu, the staff at Belle is always extremely friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. They go above and beyond the Covid-19 protocols too. It’s the perfect patio for a brunch experience in Belmont.”
Jennifer Naylor (Sussex Farm)
Sourdough English Muffin from Belle. “When I was first introduced of this sourdough English muffin, I was absolutely amazed. It was the most delicious English muffin I have ever tried. I recently got some more, and I’ve been eating one just about everyday with kimchi and egg. So so good.”
Kelsey Naylor (Basan)
Za’atar Croissants from Bowerbird Bakeshop. “I love every single thing I’ve ever eaten from Bowerbird Bakeshop, but most recently they gifted us with their za’atar croissants, and they were ridiculously good. Perfect flake and butter-to-breadiness ratio. For a staff meal we turned them into sandwiches with some things we had hanging around and 10/10 would absolutely eat again. Seriously though, you could put anything on one of these and it would be the best sandwich you’ve eaten all year.”
Jennifer Peterson (Paradox Pastry)
Scott Shanesy’s Polenta Pullman Loaf from Belle. “We buy one each week, cut it in half, flip it on end, and leave it on the cutting board until it’s gone. Toast, slather with butter, drizzle with honey . . . swoon.”
Sober Pierre (Pearl Island Cafe)
Classic Croissant Breakfast Sandwich from Bowerbird Bakeshop. “Pretty much any egg and name it combination.”
Wilson Richey (Ten Course Hospitality)
Cassoulet at The Alley Light. “We didn’t get out that much this year, but there is always a dish that stands out. For me, the dish that stands out in my head from the entire year is the cassoulet at The Alley Light. Robin McDaniel has made this a signature dish for the Charlottesville experience. It is warm and comforting, complex and extremely flavorful. Perhaps this year I needed a lot more ‘comfort’ in my life and the cassoulet at Alley Light was the warm hug that has gotten me through. I also love that it is a sharing dish — there is something special about an amazing meal that is meant to be shared.”
John Shanesy (Belle)
Chicken Barbacoa from Conmole. “The sauce was outstanding, and I was impressed at how perfectly cooked the chicken was. The rice was perfect, too, with warm tortillas and plenty of them. This chicken was so good that I went and washed my hands and emailed you immediately before I finished my first of three plates. I placed my order subsequently three more times over the next few weeks. I miss it like I miss live music. I couldn’t have gotten more lucky having Benos as a neighbor either. We worked together back in 2011 at Mas and he was so kind to me then and we immediately picked back up the same jokes we ran back then.”
Susan Sweeney (Cake Bloom)
Capesante ai Ferri from Tavola. “We celebrated our first anniversary in Charlottesville at Tavola and every course was outstanding, but what really sticks out in my memory was the capesante ai ferri. Perfectly seasoned and caramelized, the seared scallops sat on a bed of brilliant red beet risotto for creamy, earthy perfection in every bite.”
Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)
Produce from Mooring Farm. “Jonathan and Mariana are great friends and their veg is really great. Each summer they also always grow some new weird things to try out, which is always fun for us. All year they have generously donated produce to Oakhart and Little Star which is truly an amazing gift.”