TAMPA — Joe Maddon spent the day watching David Price get traded to the Detroit Tigers. Michael Stewart spent the day grouper fishing with the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, at Maddon's suggestion. The former in a grape-colored polo shirt and black jeans, the latter just slightly wind-burned, the duo were serene hosts at something Tampa doesn't have much of: a one-night-only pop-up restaurant.
On Thursday, Buddy Brew Coffee opened its doors to an invitation-only preview of Ava, the restaurant collaboration of the Rays manager and restaurant veteran Stewart, owner of Tampa's 717 South. Slated to open in October in the Post SoHo apartment complex at W Swann and S Howard avenues, the much-anticipated project will feature a multiregional Italian menu and a wine list guided by Maddon's extensive wine knowledge.
A group of 40 friends and curious foodies crowded into Buddy Brew's recently expanded space to sample a seven-course menu executed by Ava's executive chef, Joshua Hernández, whom Stewart met earlier this year on a trip to Los Angeles, where Hernández was cooking at Bestia, Ori Menashe's hot regional Italian restaurant.
Hernández and Stewart bonded over the triumphs and heartbreaks of temperamental Acunto wood-fired ovens. A jet-black Italian-born Acunto will be a central feature of Ava, the space designed by Joshua Charles, who has helped create stylish properties such as the Optimist Restaurant in Atlanta.
Sans pizza oven at Buddy Brew, the evening got under way with dry-cured Italian meats, much of it from the duck breast prosciutto to the potted pork with a cap of lustrous duck fat, concocted in Hernández's home kitchen for now.
In cities around the country, professional athletes and coaches have lent their names to restaurants. Wayne Gretzky, Brett Favre, Mike Ditka, Don Shula and locals like former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott and the Rays' Evan Longoria — the list is long, but in many cases the real connection to the celeb is tenuous.
Not so at Ava, according to Stewart.
"Joe came into 717 South in 2006 and we've become extremely close friends, more like family." In 2009, they launched an annual "Thanksmas" event supporting local shelters and "from that night forward we've talked about doing a restaurant together."
With 5,600 square feet and 200-plus seats, Ava will be a quantum leap from Maddon's family's Third Base Luncheonette in Hazleton, Pa., where he worked as a teen.
By his own admission as being not as well-versed in Italian wine as American and Spanish, Maddon has still contributed aesthetically to the soon-to-debut Tampa project.
"The tile behind the oven, I chose that. The atmosphere will be pretty cool, with (Hernández) carrying on conversation with people seated at the bar as he pulls things from the oven."
Hernández, who grew up in Sarasota, aims to bring something new to South Tampa with Ava: With a reliance on housemade salumi, bread and pizza, Ava will traffic in rustic, ingredient-centric dishes.
Still, with the trials of his pitcher's trade today, how was Maddon able to chat about his must-have menu items like sausage and peppers?
"I'm able to put stuff down, to decompress. I meditate every day."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.