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The Taste: Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar

Aug 03, 2015 03:00PM ● Published by Arden Haley

By Rita Calvert

Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar
409 S. Talbot Street, St. Michaels
410-745-3081 // avaspizzeria.com

Hip and happening, Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar could draw a crowd just from the outstanding wood burning pizza alone. But wait, there’s more—lots more. As you can tell from Owner and Chef Chris Agharabi’s recipe for Shrimp Fra Diavolo (shared herein), there are full-bodied, yet relaxed entrées with an impeccably chosen wine list to complement all dishes. Any you simply must experience the year-round outdoor patio. We discussed many aspects of Ava’s with Chris.

How did you approach creating a pizzeria and wine bar? Did the concepts develop together or separately?

They developed together. Pizza and wine really do pair well! Pizza is mainly bread and cheese which have a natural affinity for the juice of the grape. We try to offer wines that complement all of our dishes. We also try to make our wine list accessible to all tastes and train our staff to help people make a choice that works for them. 

What was your background and training to become a chef and then restaurateur? Who is Ava?

I trained at the professional school of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland with [training] at Persimmon Restaurant in Bethesda. L’Academie gave me the tools to work in a professional kitchen. Then, Persimmon’s owner/chef Damian Salvatore, showed me the “ins-and-outs” of running an independent restaurant. Before cooking school I liked to cook at home when I had time. The restaurant is named after my daughter.

Can you tell us about the wood-burning oven? How did that come about? What wood do you use?

The wood burning oven was bought from a chain restaurant that was going out of business in Balston Commons Mall in Arlington, VA. Getting it to St. Michaels is a story in itself, as it weighs 4,000 pounds. We burn white oak that is seasoned by Phil MacDonald on his property off Black Dog Alley. We run there once a week with our “wood truck,” an old Ford F-150, and split the wood in back of our prep kitchen every day. The white oak gives us a dry heat that really lets the flavor of the crust come through even with our bread, which we also make in the wood burning oven. These breads make the perfect marriage with our fresh mozzarella, also made in house.

As a restaurant in a resort town, what kind of customer base do you have regarding tourists and locals? How about seasonally?

We’re open six days a week year round. We're closed on Monday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and for the St. Michaels fireworks. We close early New Year’s Eve so the staff can celebrate. As far as our customer base, we love our locals who have supported us from day one. We see the same faces over and over again. We continually get visitors from everywhere, and serve over 75,000 customers a year.

Ava’s outdoor patio is captivating with some very unique art. How did you come up with each of the focal points-tiled mosaic mural, beer-tap fountain, and vertical herb and vertical wall planters? Do tell about the retractable roof.

The mural was coordinated by Jen Wagner, a local artist, who made it a community project for kids in the neighborhood and students who were interested in mosaic art. There are little hints about the staff, the restaurant, and friends hidden in the mural and people always notice new gems to look at. The beer tap fountain was inspired by the Bulldog Bar and Grill on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Although not as long, it really gives the patio some interest and people take “selfies” in front of it every day. I gathered materials and the ideas, while the guys at Bridges Land Management worked their magic. It took about six months to get it right.

The roof was a response to an interesting broadcast email from a company named Cabrio in Wisconsin. I flew there, looked at their work and said, “What the heck!” Again, Bridges Land Management helped complete the hardscape and was able to deliver the vision I had for the environment. We got it up and running in about three weeks last fall, just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Customers can “sit outside” year ’round.

The wall planter hangings were eight bucks on Amazon.  They do what they are supposed to do!

What is your earliest memory in the kitchen?

I grew up in New York in an Italian household. There was gravy (most people call it tomato sauce) with meatballs and sausage on the stove at least once a week. The kitchen was a place that everyone gathered to talk, argue, and eat.

What is your favorite childhood food memory?

Picking grape leaves in the woods around my house on Long Island. My mom would then stuff them with rice lentils and spices, then steam them on the stove. Dipping Rocky Point Italian bread in the gravy on the stove wasn’t bad either. 

Ava’s Shrimp Fra Diavolo

Serves 4

Robust, with lots of herbs (dried and fresh), garlic, and a hit of heat, this healthy pasta dish makes the shrimp shine. An Italian specialty it is!

Ingredients
  • 1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined 
  • 1 tsp salt, plus additional as needed 
  • 1 tsp dried crushed red pepper flakes 
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus 1 to 2 Tbsp 
  • 2 Tbsp. capers 
  • 1 cup fresh diced tomatoes 
  • 1 cup dry white wine  
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 8 oz. dry pasta, cooked al dente 
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano 
  • 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves 
  • 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves

Directions

Toss the shrimp in a medium bowl with 1 teaspoon of the salt and red pepper flakes.

Heat the 3 tablespoons of oil in a heavy large skillet over medium high head. Add the shrimp and sauté until translucent (about a minute), toss, and continue cooking until just cooked through, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to a platter.

Add the tomatoes, with their juices, wine, garlic, capers, and oregano. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 3 minutes.

Return the shrimp and any accumulated juices to the tomato mixture, add cooked pasta, toss to coat and cook for about a minute so the flavors meld together.

Remove from heat, and stir in the fresh parsley and basil, season with more salt to taste, and serve.

_______________________________________

As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art, and nourishment of food. She is a blogger, photographer, and advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for 25 years.
Today, Eat+Drink+Shop recipe restaurant st michaels dining scene the taste Eastern Shore August 2015 Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar
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