Fresh-baked ciabatta. Wood-fired pizza. House-made bolognese and pesto sauces to go. Straciatella and Belgian chocolate gelato. Imported olive oil. And a sit-down restaurant. Think a pint-sized version of Eataly, the popular homage to Italian cuisine, coming to East Village.
That’s what a trio of first-, second- and third-generation Italian locals are hoping to create in a nearly 8,000-square-foot vacant space located on the ground floor of the 10-year-old Strata apartment complex at Market Street and Ninth Avenue. Their first culinary project, RoVino Rotisserie + Wine in Little Italy, is nearly 3 years old, and the team says it’s ready to expand their Italian-focused brand with a new project they believe will be a good fit for the growing East Village neighborhood.
They’re calling it RoVino The Foodery.
“I think we’re perfect for East Village because we will cater to the people in that area,” said Tom Tarantino, one of the partners who has more than 30 years experience in the grocery and restaurant industry. “There are thousands of households in East Village alone. And we already have our following from RoVino in little Italy, so we want to bring our brand to the East Village and this is a way for us to expand.”
Construction already has started, with an opening expected by July or August.
The passion project, though, faces considerable challenges, coming as it does on the heels of somewhat similar failed endeavors.
Previously occupying the Strata space was Market Hall, an upscale market and restaurant combo that opened in late 2015 and closed nearly two years later. Bottega Americana, a well regarded Italian restaurant and market in East Village, closed last year after a nearly four-year run. And Roma Urban Market, a spacious foodie emporium in Little Italy that included a deli, rotisserie chickens, prepared Italian dishes and beer and wine for sale, shuttered in February after being open a little more than a year.
“If they’re bringing that authentic Italian flavor to San Diego it could do well,” said longtime restaurant broker Mike Spilky of Location Matters. “But it’s a big space, and there is lots of competition in East Village. The risk reward model for that kind of proposal is pretty challenging and there’s been a lot of turnover in East Village. They’re definitely going to have to draw more than the East Village residents.”
While Spilky has tended to sidestep East Village as a market for new restaurant projects, broker Pasquale Ioele, who handled the Foodery deal, said he is bullish on East Village’s potential as a culinary destination. While he said a number of other prospective tenants were interested in the Strata space, the landlord — UDR — was selective in who it wanted for the apartment building — and its tenants, Ioele said.
“This will be a concept highly geared to the residents,” said Ioele of Flocke & Avoyer’s Urban Strategies Group. “I’m on Little Italy’s board of directors, I know Little Italy backwards and forwards and it is the ultimate destination for visitors to go and dine. But the residential population of East Village is significantly higher and hopefully it becomes as much of a draw. And The Foodery is not meant to be the mega draw that has to bring the tourists and conventioneers.”
He also notes there were issues particular to the other marketplace and Italian concepts that were ultimately forced to close. Market Hall, for instance, was a laudable concept but it wasn’t well executed nor was it run by locals, Ioele said. As it turned out, Los Angeles restaurateur Tony Riviera, who came up with the Market Hall idea, opened the same restaurant-grocery concept in San Francisco and Seattle, and those closed as well.
In mapping out their plan for The Foodery, Tarantino and partners Antonio Buono and Vincenzo Bruno will be creating separate areas for different food and beverage options, from a coffee bar, and beer and wine bar to a bakery, a gelato-filled case, and deli counter where prosciutto, sopressato and Italian cheeses will be sold, along with ricotta salads, hot prepared foods and pizzas. Also filling out the space, which will have seating inside and out for 150, will be a grocery area stocked with imported foods from Italy and a separate restaurant.
“Picture a small version of Eataly,” Tarantino said. “We think people in East Village are looking for convenience. We’re also going to start a program similar to Blue Apron where we would have meals in a container ready to pop in your oven, like a kit.”
Tarantino estimates the project cost at $2 million, much of which is being covered by the partners, he said. Helping minimize expenses is that the space already had the infrastructure needed for a restaurant operation.
While the project does have a grocery component, Tarantino said do not think of The Foodery as a conventional grocery store or even a food hall like Liberty Public Market with separate vendors.
Joining him in the East Village endeavor are Buona, a native Italian from the Florence area who at one time worked at a Sprouts’ deli counter after her children were grown, and Bruno, a San Diego State grad who worked six years at Little Italy’s Mona Lisa market before helping open RoVino.
“I’m a huge Padres fan so I think being near Petco Park will be good, and we just see the potential of an up and coming neighborhood,” Bruno said. “And there’s not too much Italian down there so we’re excited about bringing our concept form Little Italy to East Village.”