Saturday, June 23, 2018
Dining

Joe Maddon teams up for new Tampa restaurant

Wayne Gretzky has one, so does Brett Favre. Mike Ditka and Don Shula have a bunch. Closer to home, former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott is part owner of Island Way Grill and the Rays' Evan Longoria is partnering in the upcoming Ducky's Sports Lounge in Tampa.

Sports legends and restaurants seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. And Tuesday another such sandwich was announced: Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon will partner with 717 South owner Michael Stewart on Ava, a new restaurant to open in May 2014 in the Post SoHo apartment complex at Swann and S Howard avenues.

"This will be nothing like those others," Stewart says. "This won't be like a sports legend-owned restaurant. I'm not just licensing a name. I'm looking to him as a partner."

By this Stewart means no gift shop of Maddon bobbleheads and Rays-obilia, no menu items with sly Rays names or framed glossies on the walls. This collaboration, Stewart says, is borne of their mutual love of great food and wine.

"Joe came into 717 South in 2006 and we've become extremely close friends, more like family. We spend holidays together. Sometime in 2009, Joe looked over at me and said, 'I'd like to do the Thanksmas meal at 717 to spread awareness.' I said that's great, we'll get you in the kitchen. And from that night forward we've talked about doing a restaurant together."

Thanksmas is Maddon's yearly project to feed the homeless a holiday meal in early December. An annual dinner held at 717 South raises money for the event.

According to Stewart, there were more than 75 qualified bids for the restaurant spot in the project, which includes 231 apartments and retail space. Just a stone's throw from 717 South, does Stewart worry that Ava will compete with his flagship restaurant?

"We're going to take Italian food and make it better," says Stewart, who departs next week for a trip to Italy to acquire a Neapolitan pizza oven. He goes on to describe a small menu featuring farm-to-table ingredients, charcuterie and house-made pastas. And he has hired designer Smith Hanes, who helped create red-hot properties such as the Optimist Restaurant in Atlanta and Restaurant No. 246 in Decatur, Ga.

When asked what Maddon brings to this project, Stewart speaks of the manager's deep knowledge of wines, as well as what his day job experience imparts.

"He's a brilliant manager. I could learn a lot from his managerial skills. And we're looking to have more than one restaurant."

For his part, Maddon is no restaurant rookie, having worked at his family's Third Base Luncheonette in Hazelton, Pa., named such in 1947 because "Third Base is the next closest place to Home."

Ava, with 5,600 square feet and 200-plus seats, won't be exactly like home. But Maddon already knows what his dream meal will be.

"Locally sourced tomatoes in a tomato stack; a grilled wedge salad; all-natural, antibiotic-free pork with peppers, served with hard-crusted Italian bread. With a nice bottle of red wine from the Ribera del Duero region," Maddon says. "And if it's during the offseason, a sip of Nonino Grappa."

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