Michael Stewart flew around. Michael Stewart ate food. That's sort of the definition of a vacation: eating food in a place you've never been before. But Michael Stewart wasn't on vacation. He was scouting, scooping up good ideas from restaurants on a couple of continents. And in November, all those good ideas, and a whole bunch of others, came together in the opening of Ava, his much-anticipated collaboration with former Rays manager Joe Maddon.
In a year of very ambitious and exciting restaurant openings, Ava sits right at the top, daring diners to compare it to New York or San Francisco. And indeed it reads like a big-city restaurant: It's absolutely stunning but not fussy (thanks to the savvy design efforts of Atlanta-based Joshua Charles), it's affordable (pop in for a $12 pizza and a beer on a Tuesday night, no big financial whoop), and it has kitchen and service talent deep and wide.
Stewart brought a few servers from his longtime 717 South right across the street, but even the recent hires, everyone in hip-casual lumbersexual shirts, are smart and personable, eagle-eying tables and food running for each other. Then there's their ability to parse the all-Italian wine list (Stewart says a big-league reserve list will debut soon) and the short lineup of tremendous cocktails devised by bar manager Tommy Simms (lots of cool aperols and amari and things like violet liqueur). And then there's how they explain what chefs Joshua Hernández and J. Ward are sending out of the luscious-looking exhibition kitchen and the jet-black Italian-born Acunto oven.
What Hernández, a mentee of Ori Menashe in Los Angeles, is doing does require a touch of explanation. He's a pizza zealot, a crazy man who froze dough starter from Menashe's Bestia and nurtures it along daily like a baby chick. He wants you to know that this is real Neapolitan pizza, bubbled and puffed and chewy at the outer crust and tender at the pie's center. For now he has won a battle with Stewart and they're not slicing their pies. These babies spend less than two minutes in the oven, Hernández nuzzling and jostling them just so, then get a slick of olive oil, a flurry of crunchy Maldon salt flakes and maybe a pouf of arugula before they're rushed tableside for you to slice and eat with knife and fork.
A pizza becomes something different eaten that way, something to be savored with its different textures and tangy-fruity sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes. They are the anchor at Ava, but not nearly the only stunners. A salumi plate ($15) shows some of the kitchen's drive, a platter of meats prepared and cured on site (alright, not the prosciutto), from deeply savory head cheese to balsamic-kissed chopped chicken liver to nduja, a rosy-tinged and gently spicy spreadable Italian pork sausage, paired with grilled bread slices (Hernández makes 16 loaves of that every day in the early morning when the Acunto is just right), mostarda and other accessories.
And there's more. Braggy moment: One night Joe Maddon leans our way at the pizza bar and says, "You've got to try this ribeye. Seriously." Put me in, coach. He's not always there, but for now he's logging some serious time working his way through the menu. And he's not wrong about that ribeye (market price), but the half grilled chicken set upon rosemary-perfumed white beans ($18) is every bit as lovely with its strong wood smoke waft and juicy texture.
From when the kitchen was inspected and all systems approved to when Ava's doors opened (and then when I eagerly zoomed in to review), very little time has passed for the kitchen to find its rhythm. Yet it has. There are gorgeous bowls of steamed mussels lent savor with that nduja and fennel seed, paired with smoky grilled bread rusks ($14); a fascinating dish of fried kale with high notes of pickled shallot and what looks like little socca (a chickpea flour crepe) bits ($11); and sugar-shimmery zeppole (Italian doughnuts) bites paired with a little ramekin of dense chocolate custard ($9).
For now Ava is a zoo, a who's who of Tampa with everyone craning to see if Maddon or other local celebs are cozied up at the pizza bar. But I predict that long after Maddon has settled into his Chicago penthouse and new gig, Ava will be the pacesetter for this area's burgeoning food scene.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.