Research, Fresh Ingredients & Passion

Make a better pizza and the world will beat a path to your door, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson.

That's what's happened at A Tavola, which opened in May on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine's Gateway Quarter. It's another slice of the block's success story, a model for center city redevelopment. Almost immediately, fans lined up, creating long waits for tables on weekends, to sample the pizza baked in an Italian-made, wood-fired oven topped with simple fresh ingredients.

The initial splash of the restaurant is in some ways an improbable success story. It was started by three young entrepreneurs with almost no restaurant business experience. The story behind their success amounts to a primer on doing several things right: research, an up-and-coming hip location, putting your money in what's important, and of course, a passion for well-crafted pizza.

"I love pizza. I love LaRosa's. I love Papa Johns. I'll eat DiGiorno's out of the freezer," says A Tavola co-owner Jared Wayne.

And therein lies the core of his business plan.
Wayne, 31, and with an MBA from the University of Cincinnati, had been in real estate development. But he always loved experimenting with pizza, trying different dough and toppings and understanding the magic of wood ovens. His hobby became a mission. "I would travel all over the country and try different pizzas, talk to different chefs and pick their brains."

In the summer of 2009, Wayne served up what he had learned. He was the chef at a weekly pizza night at Take the Cake in Northside. "It became such a hit, it led me to decide to open a restaurant," he says.

Wayne enlisted boyhood friends Sam Ginocchio, 24, and Bill Draznik, 30, as the idea took shape. Ginocchio had just graduated from Colgate and was planning to begin law school at the University of Cincinnati (now on hold). Draznik, a Dartmouth grad who grew up in Hyde Park, worked in commercial real estate for several years in Over-the-Rhine, and was familiar with properties, tax incentives and small business loans available to start-ups. (Recently added as a fourth partner is Wayne's brother, Nick.)

Whether any restaurant has staying power in the highly risky restaurant world, who knows? But A Tavola, some observers say, is off on the right foot.

"They did a smart, interesting thing "¢ They tested it out with their pizza nights," says Kathleen Ruppert, director of Business Development at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State. "And they checked out best practices in other locations to find out what works and what's hot."

Ruppert, who founded deShay's restaurant, and confesses to having sampled A Tavola and "loving it," salutes the owners for putting their money where they needed it. "The wood oven was very smart."

Recent studies, including one from Ohio State, found a 60 percent failure rate for independent restaurants. Of those, 26 percent fail in their first year. Still, opening a restaurant remains one of the most popular small business enterprises in the country.

Food As An Event

Ginocchio and Wayne say their food experience came from their families, who lived next door in North Avondale. It was a lifelong experience with parents who are passionate about food. "My parents loved to cook," says Ginocchio. "Food was an event."

Adds Wayne, "My mom is our best critic."

The three did their research. "We traveled all over the country and kept saying, "This is the best pizza we ever had,'" Ginocchio says with a laugh. "We found the common denominator for the great pizzas was a wood oven."

The trio raised start-up capital through private sources, and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) helped with a loan for remodeling the building, which also houses the restaurant Senate. They concentrated their capital in a custom-made wood oven from the Ferrara family of Naples, Italy, considered one of the finest oven makers in the world. The oak-fired oven is able to cook pizza at temperatures up to 1,200 degrees, unobtainable by a gas oven.

"Pizzas can be cooked in a minute," Wayne says. "It cooks so quickly you retain the moisture on the inside of the dough and you get a crispy outside. It's a perfect balance of heat and time."

"It tastes like biting into a pillow that's charred on the outside," Ginocchio adds.

The restaurant's interior is sleek and modern with a bar and seating to watch the cooks assemble pizza and dishes including chicken meatballs and peperonata.

The pizza toppings? All fresh.

"We use the best ingredients," says Wayne. "We use only Italian tomatoes. The cheese is made fresh every week. We make our own bacon and sausage. The herbs are grown locally. Our small plates are ingredients we get from local farmers."

A Tavola is bringing in the crowds, to the point where some food critics said it can be noisy on weekends. That was a pleasant surprise for the owners. "We like that it gets loud," Ginocchio says. "People who don't even know each other will share food with another table."

Prices help too. With pizza prices $15 and under, a date can easily come in under $50.

OK, there was a rookie mistake on opening night, Ginocchio admits. "Someone asked for a to-go box. We said, "¢To-go box?' We forgot all about that. It's always the most obvious thing." 

Quality, Experience, Hospitality

Tony's is 30 years in the making.

That's how long Tony Ricci toiled in the hospitality/restaurant business before opening his upscale restaurant.

Ricci built a resume in all aspects of the hospitality field before he took the plunge with his own place 18 months ago, Tony's Steak House and Seafood Restaurant. He was perhaps best known to Cincinnati restaurant-goers as the general manager of The Precinct for more than 20 years.

Ricci's business plan is based on an old-fashioned, even Old World, concept: An engaged owner whose philosophy is simply, "What else can I do for you?"

Ricci says he learned it when he first started in the industry. Even before The Precinct, Ricci had worked in hospitality at a retirement home, hotels (Drawbridge, Omni Netherland) and for a travel agency. Ricci's parents immigrated to Canada from Italy when he was a child, later moving to Cincinnati where relatives lived.

"Having my own restaurant has always been in the back of my mind," says Ricci. "And nothing makes you act on a dream faster than being out of work."

Ricci was in his late "¢40s when he parted ways with Precinct owner Jeff Ruby. In 2008, he became a high-end restaurant consultant and got into the olive oil business briefly. Plans for Tony's started to take shape while he was dining at a new location of BRAVO! Cuccina Italiano and realized the chain's former building on Montgomery Road at Fields Ertel was sitting empty. He figured it was perfect for an upscale steak and seafood restaurant. After all, the strip mall maze of the Fields Ertel sprawl is loaded with franchise restaurants with hardly an independently-owned, fine-dining experience to be found.

Heritage, Experience

It didn't take long to raise private capital. "I had a good following. There were people who trusted me with their money. They knew my reputation and what I could bring to the table."

The menu is a natural merging of his Italian heritage and his experience at one of the city's premier steakhouses. Ricci affectionately calls Cincinnati a "steak and potatoes town."

"I wanted to trend into Mediterranean dishes," he says. "But everyone was saying, "¢Where's the beef?' I knew I had to have steaks. But I think I now have more seafood and pasta dishes than my competitors."

A core staff came together quickly when word got out. His original chef David Robinson (Maisonette) was succeeded last spring by Chicago chef Kevin Kleist (Leona's). The heart of the menu remains prime steaks. And there is the cannoli made from his mother Nancy Ricci's recipe. (No, she's not slaving away in the kitchen every day, but she does come in every week to check on the batter).

Ricci gutted the former faux Roman décor, leaving an expansive room with high ceilings, a 180-seat dining area with dazzling white linens and glistening glassware. An open kitchen runs almost the length of the restaurant.

Center Stage

"The whole show is in front of you. It's like a whole stage is opened when you walk in," Ricci describes it.

And Ricci is at the center of that stage. Nightly, the impeccably dressed owner greets and works the crowd. You are Tony's most important customer. He is the best friend you never knew you had. It's a throwback to a time when that is simply what restaurant owners did. Ricci says it's a way of doing business that is part of his family and hospitality DNA.

"No request is small enough to ignore. It's what I grew up with and what I learned in the business," Ricci says, adding, "And you have to shake hands. We are texting too much."