Restaurants are risky business. A seemingly perfect idea can fail miserably in the execution, and sometimes even great location, food and service don't add up to a success on paper. So when a restaurant takes off and does well with a new idea in an unproven location, it is especially remarkable. This is exactly what has happened at Pazzo, Seth Kingsbury's venture that opened at the beginning of September 2003 in Chapel Hill's Southern Village.
It certainly didn't start out as a sure thing. Kingsbury, who was recruited by the other two silent partners in the restaurant from his longtime position in the kitchen at Nana's, wasn't sure that a restaurant could do well in the Southern Village location. "I was very uneasy about coming over here," he says. "I didn't know the area at all--even though I lived in Carrboro and drove by here every day on my way to Nana's, I didn't know that Southern Village was here. I think a lot of people didn't know it was here."
But somehow he was convinced to take over the space that had been Annie's Trattoria. They bought the restaurant on a Tuesday and opened as Pazzo on the very next night, Wednesday evening. "Our first customer was angry because the menu was different," Kingsbury says. "I had completely changed the food and the wine list in one day, and then someone ordered dessert, and I realized I hadn't even thought about that."
Annie's had been a pizzeria and Italian restaurant with a menu that consisted primarily of red sauces and other Italian/American standards. The original idea for Pazzo was to keep the restaurant a neighborhood Italian place, but to bring the quality up and to be more inventive with the menu. At first, this wasn't so easy. "We retained the entire staff from Annie's. No one was fired, so the food we put out had to be very simple because I didn't have time to train anyone." Over time though, it was clear that what the clientele wanted was food closer to Kingsbury's fine dining roots at Nana's than the homestyle Italian food at Annie's.
"I started out just experimenting, seeing if we could even sell higher-end dishes," Kingsbury says. "I'd say, 'Let's see if we can sell some duck,' and I'd order a case of ducks, and before you know it I was out of ducks. After a while, it was obvious that that's what people wanted. We started with four or five pastas on the menu, and now we're down to two." Pazzo still sells pizza and has a to-go window, but the name of the take-out counter--"Gourmet-to-go"--says it all.
After almost a year and a half in business, Pazzo's 60 seats are filled to capacity every weekend, wine dinners and special occasions sell out early, and Seth Kingsbury has a true success on his hands.
Now that the potential of Southern Village has been realized in Pazzo and a number of other successful coffee houses, marketplaces and retail shops, the owners of Pazzo are embarking on a new venture. Kingsbury still feels that there's room for a real neighborhood restaurant, and that's what they're planning in a space across the Southern Village green from Pazzo. The new restaurant, which is tentatively called Town Hall, is going to be an American bar and grill with high quality, non-pretentious food.
"We're aiming for the type of thing a chef would want to eat at a bar," Kingsbury says. "We'll have a homemade pimento cheese and cracker plate, chicken wings with tequila lime sauce, burgers and hand cut fries, 12 beers on tap and a big TV to watch the game on." The new space will be much bigger than Pazzo, with 100 seats inside and 40 seats on the covered patio.
Kingsbury hopes to lure a bar crowd from the growing population that lives at Southern Village. "Whenever I go out to bars in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, I see a ton of Southern Village folks out. There's nowhere in Southern Village to go and hang out at a bar. With 500 apartments and 500 houses in Southern Village, that's a lot of people, and I think they'd be much happier to be able to walk home from a bar than to have to drive. Part of the Town Hall plan is live music on weekends, housemade flavor-infused vodkas and a late night menu."
The new restaurant is slated to open in late May or early June, just in time for summer, which unlike the rest of Chapel Hill, is Southern Village's busiest time of year. Live music on the green, as well as outdoor movie showings and the Thursday farmers' markets, attract huge crowds. Last year, Pazzo participated in these outdoor festivities by selling beer, wine and pizza on the lawn, and Kingsbury hopes that this year the new restaurant will benefit from the crowds as well.
As for Pazzo, Kingsbury is confident the restaurant will continue to evolve and improve. "I'm so proud of how far we've come in the last year. The restaurant has changed so much since last year; it's so much better now." Kingsbury gives a lot of the credit for this to the addition of cook Tim Youngblood, another Nana's alumni who is helping to direct the Pazzo menu. The staff in general, Kingsbury says, has come a long way from that first rushed and confusing opening night.
"We did a wine dinner with the Chapel Hill Wine Company a few weeks ago, and it went so well--the staff was so smooth, everything just went great," Kingsbury says. "And I was sitting there watching it unfold, and I thought to myself: 'A year ago, if I had tried to do a wine dinner or something like this, everything would have fallen apart; I could never have done it.' I never would have thought we could come so far in such a short time."
Pazzo! is located at 700 Market St. in Chapel Hill's Southern Village. Their Web address is www.pazzo-restaurant.com. For dining, call 929-9984; dining hours are Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5-10:30 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m. For the pizzeria, call 929-9991; the pizzeria opens daily at 11 a.m.
Triangle Wine Experience events
This Thursday, as part of the Triangle Wine Experience to benefit the Frankie Lemmon School, Pazzo will be serving a five-course meal paired with Bonterra wines, one of the only wineries in California to grow and produce 100 percent organic wines. As with all Triangle Wine Experience events, reservations must be made through the Frankie Lemmon Foundation at 845-8880, or at their Web site: www.trianglewineexperience.org. See below for a complete listing of wine dinners taking place as part of the Triangle Wine Experience. All events cost $110 per person.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 17, 7 p.m.