If the whole baseball thing hadn't come along in Joe Maddon's life, he probably would have gone into the restaurant business. Now Maddon is getting a second chance.
The Tampa Bay Rays manager is part of a group that's launching a new restaurant called Ava in South Tampa that could be the first of a string of locations to open across the region.
"Growing up, I worked at my uncle's luncheonette in Hazleton Pennsylvania," Maddon said. "Mopping floors at lunchtime and after school, working the counter, making hoagies."
He applied to Cornell University as a student, and would have gone into the well-regarded restaurant and hospitality program there, but he was wait-listed, and his life took a turn toward baseball.
Now, he has become a wine fanatic with a wine cooler in his office, and is a fine food connoisseur, and is an almost a nightly fixture at the 717 South restaurant in Tampa. Recently, he struck a partnership deal with his friend and owner of 717 South, Michael Stewart, on a new restaurant company that will open a location directly across Howard Avenue in the Post SoHo apartments now under construction. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant could be the start of a string of locations opening across the region.
The restaurant will be called Ava, which roughly translates from the Italian as "breath of life," and it will take up about 4,600 square feet of interior space and 1,000 square feet of patio space at 718 South Howard Ave.
Maddon and Stewart have become friends over the last few years, as Maddon lives near 717 on Bayshore Boulevard and spends several nights a week at 717. While many baseball managers crack open a bottle of beer after a game, Maddon opens a bottle of wine. Fairly often, Maddon and Stewart will challenge each other to find the best bottle of wine under $20 or $30, and then bring it to 717 for review and tasting notes.
When Maddon and the Rays organization started hosting a "Thanksmas" event to prepare meals for the homeless, Maddon and Stewart built on the idea for an event at 717 where several Rays players took a turn as guest bartender for charity. The 717 restaurant is regularly so popular that there's a waiting list. When an opportunity came for Stewart to open a new site, Maddon jumped at the chance to be involved.
The menu for Ava is still under development, as the location won't be ready for opening until this time next year. But Stewart and Maddon have been taking the days when his team isn't playing, and meeting at restaurants across the country. Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles and so on.
Maddon and the other partners have settled on a general concept they call "Inspired Italian" that will be something more sophisticated than a lunch spot, but more casual than a fine-dining dinner restaurant.
"There is a movement toward fewer ingredients, but much higher quality," Stewart said. As opposed to 717 that has an expansive and fusion-themed menu, Ava will have a more select lineup with entrees priced at $15 to $25. "We'll be doing specials here for a while at 717 to feel out some parts of the menu, and the Ava menu will not be set in stone."
Instead, they'll focus on farm-to-table ingredients, with house-made pastas, lots of Charcuterie options, Neapolitan-style pizza, and it will have a large wine selection (in many ways overseen by Maddon) and an Italian cocktail program.
Next week, Stewart will travel to Naples, Italy, to choose an Acunto-brand oven for the site's pizzas and baked goods. To design the space, the owners commissioned the Atlanta-based designer Smith Hanes, who helped create restaurants such as the Optimist Restaurant, Restaurant No. 246 and JCT Kitchen & Bar.
They'll be open for brunch, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.
The location for the restaurant is in the ground floor of a significant new apartment project near the corner of Swann Avenue and Howard Avenue called Post SoHo. The residents of the 230 units will enter their complex by driving into the second-floor lobby.
By contrast, the retail and restaurant area on the ground floor will have its own dedicated parking, Stewart said, potentially alleviating some of the tight parking situation in the area. Already, another set of developers saw their proposed project for a new apartment building nearby hit a roadblock of neighborhood opposition that rallied around the criticism of excessive density and traffic.
In one way, Maddon thus follows in the footsteps of the Rays third baseman, Evan Longoria, who is a partner in the soon-to-open Kennedy Boulevard sports bar and restaurant Ducky's Sports Lounge.
"I don't even know when a time would be for me after baseball," Maddon said. "I hope that never occurs ... But it's wise to have balance in your life, and this is a great opportunity, an avocation, to try something I've always wanted to get involved in."