It was all rather mysterious. Chef Jason Neroni, who we met while he was at Osteria La Buca, sent an e-mail inviting me to a “special preview for my new venture in Venice.” On Friday night, March 9, we arrived at 1901 Lincoln Boulevard, just south of Superba Street, and beyond butcher paper’d windows, found an eclectic mix of Venice denizens, a massive king’s table, a graffiti’d wall mural, and an open kitchen fronted by red San Marco meat slicer. We saw Pitfire Pizza co-founder Paul Hibler and quickly learned that Superba Snack Bar was also the first concept from American Gonzo Food Corp., Hibler’s new restaurant incubator.
Hibler and Neroni met last year on the Paramount lot during The Taste. Hibler ended up going back to Osteria La Buca after the event, they cooked together, and became friends. A couple months later, they caught up over drinks. “He said he had this space in Venice and asked me what I would do,” said Neroni. “I said my lifetime dream has always been to open a pasta restaurant.” Like a genie, Hibler helped grant his wish.
On March 9, Neroni prepared six courses for Superba Snack Bar, which Hibler called a “pastaria with small plates,” “casual but elevated.” Most of the menu descriptions appeared on wall-taped butcher paper, including queso fundido with green chorizo, poblanos, pickled jalapeno salsa and yogurt on masa “naan;” a cazuela of sunchokes, ruby red grapefruit, sumac yogurt, and green olives; smoked chestnut agnolotti with amaro butter and “Italian 5 spice” – salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise; and a play on peanut butter and jelly with a jar of hibiscus jelly and sesame custard.
We visited the Fairfax location of Pitfire Pizza for another trial run on May 23, and Neroni’s latest menu included Eclectic Acres greens with superba ricotta, blossoms and pickled jalapeño dressing; porchetta with arugula, preserved lemon and green garlic confit; whole wheat rigatoni with lamb Bolognese with carrots, black garlic and ricotta salata; and ramp pizza with Tallegio, crème fraiche and smoked bone marrow. As Neroni said, “We went for the jugular, or I should say, for the gut.” He also said Superba Snack Bar will be “a little bit more focused, not so rustic and big.”
We asked about the criteria for a dish at Superba, and Neroni said, “We’re trying to reshape what everybody’s doing, because I don’t want to be like everybody else.” That process involved sourcing unique pasta dyes from Italy, fashioning shapes like garganelli and cresta de gallo (“rooster’s head pasta”) and avoiding “standard fare” like angel hair and fettuccine.
Neroni enjoys the hands on aspect of pasta making. “It’s kind of like being a sculptor in a sense,” he said. “You can make these things with your hands, give people your offerings and show what your work is in front of you.”
The dinner menu will feature four categories: Salumi & Charcuterie, Snacks, From Our Backyards, and From Our Hands. At lunch, they’ll offer items From Our Hands to Yours (aka burgers and sandwiches), and brunch brings Eggs and More Than Just Eggs. The design comes courtesy of Design, Bitches, and the General Manager is Alexander Gonzalez, who spent the past five years at Alinea, starting in the kitchen and shifting to the front of house.
The setting for March’s preview was supposed to morph into Superba Food & Bread, which Neroni described as “Tartine meets Blue Ribbon Bakery,” pastries in the morning, tartines at lunch and prix fixe at dinner that may include lamb meatloaf or rhubarb pie with pistachio ice cream. They moved to a location further down Lincoln Boulevard to accommodate Pitfire’s production facility, and to own the property instead of remaining a tenant. Neroni predicted a December debut for the second Superba. However, drive down Lincoln and you can already see a Dutch bread truck branded with Pitfire and sporting graffiti. Trucks like those will eventually deliver three types of Superba bread: rye, Pullman, and brioche on Fridays.
Neroni and Hibler also mentioned a potential concept called Tacos El Camino, featuring 5-6 tacos on flour and masa “tortillas,” no guac, no chips.
Neroni isn’t the only chef who will fall under the American Gonzo Food Corporation banner, but the company isn’t ready to release the second name yet, since that’s down the line. Neroni said, “American Gonzo is meant to be like an incubator. Paul finds people like myself, who want to do artisanally crafted foods, and basically wants to help them…He can find the capital, he has the infrastructure, the HR and accounting, all of that, to help you get set up and to help you prosper.” Superba gets the first Gonzo opportunity to prosper to start Summer 2012.