Tazza: a portmanteau word combining tacos and pizza, two of America's favorite food groups.
Kitchen: currently fashionable term for a restaurant; the trendy equivalent of “bistro.”
So, Tazza Kitchen is a new concept thought up by the slick marketing department of some national restaurant chain, right?
Wrong. Sure, technically Tazza Kitchen is a chain. The restaurant that opened in February in Cameron Village is the third location. The other two are in Richmond, Va., and Columbia, S.C.
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And granted, owners John Davenport, Jeff Grant and John Haggai are market-savvy restaurateurs with ample experience in the franchise world. Until recently, they owned a number of Cafe Caturra locations.
But that’s where the similarities end. Davenport, Grant and Haggai sold their wine bars to devote their energies to their own concept, which they’re billing as “Baja meets the Mediterranean coast.” The common threads weaving these two cuisines together are a focus on wood-fired cooking and locally sourced ingredients.
The owners also happen to be good friends who – very much unlike the typical corporate marketing department – are passionate about their idea. Some of that passion is captured in numerous videos and photo albums on the restaurant’s website of the group’s visits to Italy and Mexico and to farms, food artisans and craft brewers in Virginia and the Carolinas. All in the interest of research, naturally.
The result is a seasonally changing menu that showcases the flavors of the regional cuisines that inspired it – in many cases with a contemporary American twist.
But don’t let the restaurant’s name fool you into expecting pepperoni tacos and the like. Presentations at Tazza Kitchen are clearly conceived with respect for their culinary heritage.
The current menu lists only two tacos, both on locally made corn tortillas. Fish tacos riff on their Baja roots with tomatillo confit, pickles, Calabrese mayo and crunchy quinoa – a combination that delivers all the flavors and textures of the traditional slaw and mayo and then some. Five- spice chicken tacos with guacamole, pequin chile slaw, pico de gallo and crema manage to sneak in an Asian element without seeming out of place.
Pizzas get their own dedicated category, with five specialty pies ranging from classic margarita to a delightful combination of house-made spicy sausage and black-pepper honey. Or you can create your own combo by adding, say, prosciutto to the vegetable pizza. Regardless of which toppings you choose, they’ll sit on an exemplary wood-fired crust that’s charred and blistered at the edges, pliable and gratifyingly chewy in the middle.
Even so, you’d be doing yourself an injustice if you limited yourself to tacos and pizza. You’d be missing out on the many other delights that issue from that massive wood-fired brick oven at the back of Tazza Kitchen’s rustic-chic dining room. A succotash of roasted corn, tomatoes and green beans, for starters, punctuated with house-made chorizo and topped with a flawless poached egg. Chicken wings, with cantaloupe, pickled watermelon rind and a queso fresco buttermilk dipping sauce to complement the wings’ juicy flesh and caramelized skins. And roasted cauliflower – bite-size florets tossed with diced red onion and chiffonade mint, showered with finely grated grana padano, and fetchingly served in a miniature cast-iron loaf pan.
If you like crab, you absolutely don’t want to miss the brick oven crab cakes. Free-form mounds of jumbo lumps and little else, they’ll have you wondering how they didn’t fall apart in the oven. They surely will do just that as soon as you touch them with your fork.
Don’t overlook the specials, either. You might score some Stingray oysters on the half shell or wood oven-roasted okra. The nightly fresh catch fully lives up to the locavore ethic, too, with fish pulled from the waters of the Carolina coast that have included tile, flounder and the cobia I scored recently. Expertly seared, the fish landed on my table in a shallow tide pool of agrodolce-spiked “acqua pazza” fish broth and a colorful flotsam of broccoli rabe and roasted tomatoes.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent, a feat that’s impressive given the temperamental nature of wood-fired ovens. The shrimp were a bit overcooked in the chard-and-shrimp salad that I ordered one night, and an otherwise capable execution of roasted chicken could have used more salt. All was forgiven by the time I’d finished licking my spoon after a dessert of queso fresco cake with creme fraiche semifreddo.
From the honey tones of its pine plank walls to the turquoise of its banquette upholstery, the dining room takes its decor cues from the same sunny regions that inspired the kitchen. So does the Italian-leaning wine list, and a cocktail list that’s a mix of classics and original creations such as a mezcal-and-agave elixir called the Smoke Break.
The draft beer selection is determined by which Tazza Kitchen location you happen to be dining in. Here, the taps are dedicated exclusively to North Carolina brews. It’s just one more bit of evidence that Tazza Kitchen is not a national chain, though once you’ve eaten here you’ll hardly need convincing.
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