Restaurant review: Game on at Ava

South Tampa's Ava scores some big hits, but also swings and misses.

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click to enlarge HOT STUFF: Executive chef Josh Hernandez removes a margherita pizza from the Acunto wood-fired oven. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
HOT STUFF: Executive chef Josh Hernandez removes a margherita pizza from the Acunto wood-fired oven.

Though its name might conjure old Hollywood, the restaurant, owned by Michael Stewart and Joe Maddon, isn’t pronounced Ava as in Ava Gardner, but rather Ah-va with a short “a.” Outside by the complimentary valet, the shiny striped Chevy Chevelle SS with antique tags — a muscle car of Maddon’s youth — signals that the man is in the house. The acclaimed manager who left the Rays and will helm the Cubs come spring is very much a presence at Ava, working the crowd just as he charms the post-game press.

Designer Joshua Charles’s industrial-chic decor with open kitchen and repurposed nautical lighting is clearly a home run. The servers’ plaid shirts, with more patterns on view than you’ll see at Dunedin’s Highland Games & Festival, announce a casual vibe.

The staff could use some brush-up work on the fundamentals, though; the teamwork is friendly but sloppy, with not enough menu or wine knowledge, especially with a wine list and sparkling Speigelau stemware that deserve attention. Just as ball teams learn opposing pitchers, the servers need to know the dishes cold so they’re ready for a curve ball from any diner. Too many whiffs with my party: lingering empty plates and a messy table. But it’s an easy fix, and hey, it’s still gastronomic spring training.

The restaurant’s house-made bread is Ava’s Evan Longoria, the reliable superstar. It has an amazing open, airy crumb with a crisp, chewy crust that I haven’t seen since I last spent time on Italian soil. Lightly brushed with garlic-infused olive oil and perfectly grilled with just a touch of char, it soars, and alone is worth the visit. We sample it with the warm ricotta and the salumi platter.

click to enlarge The restaurant's bucatini pasta in a umami-filled vaccinara. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The restaurant's bucatini pasta in a umami-filled vaccinara.
The house-cured meats are a triple play around the horn. There’s minced chicken liver, a tranche of pork head cheese, delicious duck confit in a ramekin topped with fat, as well as piles of soppressata, prosciutto, wafer-thin pickled beets and cauliflower, whole-grain mostarda and spicy spreadable nduja. But there’s just not enough bread, especially if you’re going to share (which I highly recommend). We have to add an additional order at $3.

As a starter, the warm ricotta is simple, but luscious. The soft curds melt on your tongue, leaving a slight hint of anise-tinged fennel pollen that morphs into vanilla on the finish like an oak-aged wine. Spread on the crisp, rustic bread, it’s a subtle treat.

The Acunto wood-fired oven from Napoli produces an exquisite-looking margherita pizza. The sauce boasts fresh acidity from San Marzano tomatoes, balanced by the creamy mozzarella. I’d prefer a chiffonade of basil to the huge whole leaves, so there’s an herbal note in every bite, but the crust has wonderful char. The puffy edge is marvelously chewy, although there’s little crackle, which I miss.

click to enlarge TEAM LEADERS: Ava co-owners Michael Stewart and Joe Maddon. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
TEAM LEADERS: Ava co-owners Michael Stewart and Joe Maddon.
The lamb shank is like 2014’s Wil Myers. The pieces are all in place for greatness, but when push comes to shove, it just doesn’t deliver. Gordon Ramsay would be screaming at the meat station for the lack of seasoning. How did this beautifully braised piece of meat end up so bland? First, too little pan sauce. The other components — lentils and Brussels sprouts — swing and miss. The Italians have the perfect phrase, “al dente,” to describe the desired texture of both. It translates “to the tooth” — that perfect moment when there’s just a bit of resistance as you bite. It’s the Goldilocks zone: not too hard, not too soft, but just right. Unfortunately, the lentils are a tad too firm, and the Brussels sprouts are almost hardballs. All that’s missing is a bat.

But the fish and pasta are worth cheering for. The kitchen substitutes grouper for the wahoo on the menu, but it’s perfectly cooked. The creamy sauce rocks, and the tiny Sardinian fregola (think Israeli couscous) is a tasty complement. The long strands of bucatini (sort of a pierced thick spaghetti) are enrobed in umami-filled vaccinara, a scrumptious oxtail-celery braise. Both dishes are as satisfying as a triple to the opposite field.

You know the importance of a closer, Joe. Right now the desserts are like Grant Balfour — full of promise but just unable to pull out the save. The tiramisu has great flavor, but is soggy. The panna cotta needs to loosen up. And the zeppole, which had my batters expecting a big fat one down the middle, doesn’t work at the size of pretzel bites. The tiny bits of fried dough are pleasant, but if you’ve been transported by this airy sweet covered with powdered sugar at a Little Italy street fair (as have my tablemates), Ava’s version strikes out, despite its dense chocolate custard battery mate.

I assume executive chef Joshua Hernandez and his team will work out all the kinks as the season progresses; with a keen eye, Ava can make the playoffs. Thanks, Joe, for leaving this behind as you head to the Second City to work your magic with the Cubbies. Oh, and, take it from me, use your influence to meet Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas at Alinea; it’s more exciting than stealing home. They’re Ruth and Huggins in our midst — living culinary Hall of Famers.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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