A new restaurant has arrived on the Downtown Mall, and it could be a game-changer. Red Pump, A Tuscan Kitchen is owned by Dean and Lynn Easton Andrews, who, with a long history in high-end hospitality, seem to have a knack for getting things right. Their Easton & Porter Group includes the outstanding Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards and the nationally acclaimed event company Easton Events, as well as Charleston’s Zero George hotel. And, Dean once ran hotels of the luxury chain Orient Express, including Keswick Hall. The Andrews’ famed attention to detail makes Red Pump one of the most promising Downtown Mall openings in years. From atmosphere to food to service, it’s a good bet that Red Pump will be first rate.
At 401 East Main Street, the restaurant takes over the revolving-door site most recently home to Positively 4th Street. But, after a complete overhaul, you would hardly recognize it. Like Pippin Hill, the atmosphere is elegant without being stuffy, intending to reflect the style of a “contemporary European cafe,” with whimsical touches like overhead lighting made of whisks. The facade opens onto the Downtown Mall, where there will be an al fresco cafe and bar. Inside, there is an open kitchen, whose centerpiece is a beautiful wood-fired oven.
Red Pump fulfills the Andrews’ longtime dream to create a restaurant based on the food of Northern Italy, where they were married in 2000. Of course, some might argue that they already have an Italian restaurant in Pippin Hill, whose food takes much of its inspiration from Italy, where Chef Amalia Scatena trained. It was Chef Scatena herself who suggested Red Pump’s chef, Todd Grieger, a widely respected veteran of the Charlottesville food scene, with stints at Palladio and Maya, as well as sous chef of Glass Haus Kitchen.
According to Grieger, the kitchen’s focus will be locally-sourced, ingredient-driven food. “In Italy there’s a deep connection to the soil and to the sea,” said Grieger. “It’s simple, organic food that tastes great and isn’t complicated.” Bread, pasta, and butter will all be made in-house, as will the dough for the wood-fired pizzas, which Grieger says he spent months perfecting. As for local sourcing, in addition to drawing on area farms and producers, Red Pump will even have its own vertical garden of herbs and greens, right in the restaurant.
Greiger has been busy testing recipes in the Pippin Hill kitchen and at home, and the opening menu is a result of that process. Though the menu will change often, Grieger’s current favorites include a ravioli of duck confit with scarmoza cheese, rhubarb, and purple basil. “It’s salty, sweet, sour, and smokey all at the same time.” As for pizzas, Grieger aims to resist what he perceives can be a tendency to overdress pizzas. His favorite comes with arugula, ricotta, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, and lemon.
We had the good fortune of sampling some of Grieger’s creations, and found the pizza particularly promising. The science of pizza has become somewhat of an obsession for Grieger, and it shows. Although we tried just one slice, it was the closest thing we’ve found in Charlottesville to the Neopolitan-style pizzas we’ve enjoyed in other cities.
Also excellent was a dish of king mackerel. Mackerel can be a tricky fish, whose flavor and texture both deteriorate quickly unless properly preserved and prepared. When done right, though, it can be spectacular. Grieger nailed it, pan roasting the fish with fresh artichokes, dried tomatoes and tomato marmalade.
And, then there was the butter — just the type of detail that provides reason for great optimism. Not a lot of restaurants in Charlottesville are making their own butter, but perhaps more should be. Red Pump’s delicious fermented butter, served rightly at room temperature, was probably the main reason our basket of house-made country sourdough bread kept emptying itself.
Red Pump officially opens Tuesday, June 24, and will serve dinner Tuesday – Sunday, from 5 pm to 11 pm. We’ll be back.