A Tavola Gets Their Slice of Over-the-Rhine

Diners don't just want good food anymore; they want their food to be served with a story.

The owners of A Tavola Pizza, opening this spring on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, trust that by staying true to their story they'll offer diners a memorable experience rooted in their restaurant's humble DIY beginnings.

"We just took recipes that we grew up with, like my Mom's tomato sauce recipe, and things that we would eat together and cook together when having dinner in our back yard," co-owner, Jared Wayne said. "When we first started doing this, I said 'I want it to be like we're having a party at one of our houses.' We made the furniture, we're making the decor, we made the food, we put together the playlist, we grew the vegetables - it definitely adds to the concept at the very least."

A Tavola Pizza will be a trattoria, which is like an Italian version of a local diner; a gathering place with quick, easy food but also some high-end dishes and, of course, plenty of wine.  And so on the first warm day of March, when the young owners spoke about their restaurant in an empty supply room next door to their soon to be opened location on Vine Street, they were all grins.

Billy Draznik, 29, is the business manager and in-house meat man. He calls himself the resident worrier despite his contagious grin. Sam Ginocchio, 23, is the "baby brother," and "alchemist of fun" who - as the other two joked - is the face of the operation since he's the only one with an Italian last name. And Wayne, 31, is the guy who can't stop coming up with creative concepts for Draznick to worry about. Wayne said he thinks the place could become a forum for local farmers and artisan food producers to build a name for themselves, and participate in a growing urban neighborhood. Eventually the men hope to take that model to other markets, but for now they are trying to focus on getting the first restaurant open.

The tables and bar tops all came from the same log that the owners found dry aging in a lumberyard in Vermont. Mozzarella and ginger beer will be made in house. Diners will be able to watch the bacon cure and the pizza bake while they wait for their meal. The oven was custom-made in Italy and the woodwork was designed and executed by Wayne himself.

Bar manager Ginocchio will make seasonal cocktails that incorporate his home-brewed ginger beer, his own tinctures and an accessible wine list. Draznik will cure and smoke bacon and other meats in-house, and run the pizza oven.

A Tavola's back story is as organic as the ingredients they're incorporating into their wares having slowly grown from dinner parties that Wayne and Draznik would throw for friends in Wayne's Mt. Adam's home. Dinner was served on a table that Wayne made himself, often with ingredients from his backyard garden. It grew into something more when Wayne became disillusioned with his career in real estate marketing four years ago, and quit his job. He was having coffee with his friend Melissa Mileto, an owner of Take the Cake in Northside, who told him she'd heard he made good pizza, so why not host a pizza night at her restaurant?

Wayne, Draznik and Ginocchio began taking over the Take the Cake kitchen on Thursday nights to make artisan pizzas for small crowds of friends. The customers would pay $10 for all-you-can-eat pizza and appetizers - the crowds quickly grew to fifty, one hundred and then one hundred and fifty people. By the time they outgrew the space, Draznik said, walking out into the crowd with a freshly baked pizza was like swimming into a sea of sharks with a hunk of meat in your hands. He and Wayne, who had always talked about going into business with one another, realized they had found their first concept.

Last summer they took a trip to New York to eat at a few restaurants at the forefront of the artisanal pizza movement, Wayne said. It confirmed that the concept and their do-it-yourself approach could work here in Cincinnati.

"A lot of our ideas are kind of off the wall; we're making our own charcuterie and Sam's making his own root beer and things like that, so you can imagine people thinking we were totally crazy for doing this," Wayne said. "It was good to go there and see it being done by multiple people, so we could come back here and think, 'yeah, we can do that.'"

They had begun looking for restaurant spaces in Northside when 3CDC approached them with the space at 1222 Vine Street. At first they were reluctant to move into the fledgling Gateway Quarter, they said, but now they think they've struck gold. This spring Queen City Tours will open their first office next door to A Tavola. That operation will bring 100 or so hungry, thirsty tourists past their doors every few hours on certain days during the summer. Condominiums in the neighborhood are selling faster than they can be built, Draznick said. And following on the success of Senate and The Lackman, A Tavola will be one of three specialty eateries opening on the street this year.

"There's a renaissance going on down here you know, it's kind of like this whole culinary boulevard," Wayne said. "A couple of years ago, even ten months ago I thought 'there's no way we could be down here, that's crazy.'"

Draznik said it's not just the destination crowd, but the influx of residents, that is driving the change.

"Now you have young people buying condos and really putting a stake in the ground down here, and saying 'we love this neighborhood, we're going to make that work,'" he said. "It's very contagious when you get business owners thinking in that same mindset."

Despite being "unemployed," all three men exuded confidence and calm, and admitted that this step in business has made them feel more like themselves than they'd felt in the past.

"We would be doing what we're going to be doing at the restaurant anyway, but doing it at our house for fun," Draznik said.

Photography by Scott Beseler.

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