Rising to Expectations
Earning the first four-star review ever from The Tampa Bay Times raised the bar for Ava—a challenge the owners were more than happy to meet.
Making history came with a welcomed price for Ava. In the six years since The Tampa Bay Times began using stars to rate restaurants, no establishment had garnered enough praise to warrant a four-star review.
That changed with the highly anticipated Ava in Tampa’s Soho District, which opened in November 2014, and is a collaboration between restaurateur Michael Stewart and former Tampa Bay Rays and current Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
“When customers read the review, they are going to come to the restaurant and expect to find a new religion,” says Stewart, who has a background in finance and real estate. “It makes it very hard to manage expectations properly.”
Fortunately, with his fastidious attention to detail and decisively hands-on operational style, Stewart knows a thing or two about managing to expectations.
Before opening the 205-seat Ava, which serves inspired, rustic Italian fare in a comfortable and open setting accentuated with a textured backdrop of woods, tiles, and industrial metals, Stewart spent more than two years researching, tweaking, and changing the concept. It was originally conceived as an oyster bar and seafood restaurant.
“From the first time I met with the designer [Josh Charles] and we did the layout, not one thing remained,” Stewart says. “It was change order after change order. Toward the end, the architect made me swear it wouldn’t happen again, but it did get changed one more time.”
The restaurant’s interior features furniture and artifacts, including a round table from Verona, Italy, that dates back more than 200 years and that Stewart discovered on one of his global “research” jaunts. “If we found something we loved, we would tell the designer to make it work,” he says.
As a result of Maddon’s co-ownership, Ava’s opening was a star-studded affair, and celebrities such as Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, Tom Berenger, Colin Farrell, and Michael Jordan are known to frequent the establishment. Stewart, who is a Tampa native, met Maddon when the former Rays manager was a repeat guest at his other restaurant, 717 South, which is directly across the street from Ava.
“I first met Joe when he came back to Tampa in 2006, but I wasn’t a baseball fan,” Stewart says. “He would come in almost every night, but he never talked about baseball. He wanted to talk about what books I read and my favorite wines.”
Discovering great wines for under $35 and comparing notes became a bonding experience, and the relationship ultimately led to the joint venture.
“Joe is absolutely involved in Ava,” Stewart says. “Aside from a financial interest, he has a big hand in selecting the wines, and when he is in Tampa we meet every morning for coffee and he is in the restaurant every night.
“As a partner he is terrific, and I can attest to his great leadership ability because I have seen it firsthand.”
Ava, which translates to “breath of life,” is named for Stewart’s daughter, but pronounced AH-vah. The restaurant does about 450 covers on the weekend and 300 during the week.
Tickets average $35 to $40 for dinner and $15 at lunch. Revenues from beverages average 40 percent. “I try to keep the ratio about 60 percent to 40 percent because if you are at 50/50 you really are more of a bar,” Stewart says.
The restaurant features an authentic Acunto oven that was shipped from Italy. It reaches 950 degrees and turns out a selection of pizzas in about two minutes. Choices range from La Bestia, combining San Marzano tomato, Mozzarella, spicy ’nduja sausage, and arugula, to the classic Kale pizza, showcasing Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, and kale. Stewart says about half of the guests eat Ava’s pizzas with a knife and fork.
“We wanted an open kitchen and the pizza oven had to be at the heart of it,” he says. “I wanted people to be able to see the flames from the street.”
Sharing duties in the exhibition kitchen are co-executive chefs Joshua Hernandez and J. Ward. Chef Hernandez, who used to work with Ori Menashe in Los Angeles and is passionate about Neapolitan pizza, made his initial cross-country trek to Tampa carrying a jar of pizza starter. Along with robust pizza sales, best-selling items on the lunch menu include Wood-Roasted Vegetables for $7.50; Octopus Salad for $11.90; Bucatini Alla Vaccinara for $12.90; and Cavatelli Al Ragu for $12.50.
Open seven days a week for dinner and five for lunch, the food costs at Ava run between 29 and 31 percent. Kitchen staff get started early—about 4 a.m.— turning out handmade pasta, hand-cut vegetables, and fresh breads.
“This is the type of food that I had in Italy,” Stewart says. “We are not Southern Italian or Northern Italian, we are inspired. I don’t want to be cornered in geographically.”
Italian wines are sold predominantly by the glass, and Ava features handmade cocktails with a twist. “I have to cater to the people in Tampa,” Stewart says. “I had to put a Chardonnay on the menu, but it is from Italy.” Listening to guests is key at Ava, and Stewart says that is something he learned at 717 South. “If someone wants pasta cooked a certain way—we do it,” he says. “The question is always, ‘How do we get to yes?’”