Last June, just a few weeks after Tribute Pizza Place opened in MacGregor Village, the restaurant was the site of what was surely one of the most distinctive Father’s Day celebrations around. Prior to the event, families with reservations had provided digital photos of the dads being honored, who during the course of the meal discovered their pictures appearing on overhead TV screens in the dining room.
The Father’s Day festivities also served as an explanation for the restaurant’s unusual name, and an introduction to the concept that makes it special. The brain child of owners Tom Savitski and Carmen Tarantino, Tribute was conceived with the goal of – as they put it – “honoring our community by bringing friends and families together at a place to celebrate with good food.” To that end, the partners outfitted the restaurant (including a private room that can seat up to 30) with equipment for photo and video presentations at events ranging from wedding receptions to retirement parties to victory celebrations for local school sports teams.
A lot of teams have had successful seasons, judging by the abundance of team jerseys and boisterous voices in the dining room when I’ve dined there. Happily, a separate bar area with ample comfortable seating offered relief from the din. Tarantino, who is the restaurant’s general manager, offers more good news for the noise-averse: The owners recently installed acoustic ceiling tiles to lower the decibel level in the main dining room.
By and large, the kitchen lives up to its “good food” part of the mission. New York-style pizzas are a tribute-worthy option, their thin hand-tossed crust enticingly blistered and well-browned on the bottom. Choose from a list of 20 toppings, or opt for a house specialty pie such as the Wild Mushroom (roasted mushrooms with pecorino cheese and crispy pancetta) or Grilled Chicken & Asiago (with artichokes and fresh spinach).
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Tom Savitski, who makes the rounds of the place as a sort of chatty good will ambassador, will recommend the Nonna’s, an elegantly understated pie lightly topped with olive oil, mozzarella, fresh garlic and a bright, chunky tomato sauce. Whether you take him up on his further suggestion to gild the lily with Italian sausage is up to you, but I can confirm that the sausage – sliced in house a little thicker than most – is first-rate.
The rest of the menu – Italian-American fare, mostly – has its rewards, though the kitchen clearly has its strengths and weaknesses. As a general rule, I’d steer clear of the more ambitious offerings and stick with uncomplicated dishes and traditional pastas.
Skip the overcooked roasted oysters, for starters, and opt instead for the fried calamari – tender in a satisfyingly crisp breading and served with a classic warm marinara for dipping.
Or house-made meatballs. Made from a recipe that calls for the classic mix of ground beef, pork and veal, they’re a winning option whether you get them as an appetizer or atop a generous tangle of al dente spaghetti.
In the same vein, I’d favor a hearty lasagna or baked ziti over capellini fra diavolo, a mixed bag of properly cooked angel hair pasta, flavorful sauce punctuated with basil and roasted red peppers, and mediocre shellfish. Eggplant Parmesan – a classic rendition marred by an insufficiently drained pasta side – rates a qualified thumbs-up.
But you won’t go wrong with anything that features that Italian sausage, whether it’s simmered in “house gravy” and tossed with your choice of pasta or sauteed with peppers and onions and served on a sub roll.
The wait staff are friendly and enthusiastic for the most part but widely variable in experience, making for spotty service. The owners are aware of the problem and have recently introduced a beefed-up training program. Given their obvious commitment to their joint venture (both owners have been there every time I’ve visited), I’d rate the chances of improvement as very good.
Less than a year after opening, Tribute Pizza Place has come a long way toward its goal of becoming a cultural hub for the community. In addition to private events, the restaurant frequently hosts functions ranging from singles mixers to a kids’ New Year’s Eve masquerade party. Tribute has also become a popular game-watching spot for ECU Pirates fans – which is only natural, given that Savitsky and Tarantino were college roommates and fraternity brothers at the university.
Even so, the partners have made it clear that they don’t want Tribute to feel like a sports bar. And it doesn’t. It feels like a family-friendly gathering place, and it has plenty to offer – even if the only thing you want to celebrate is a good pizza.