I am regularly amused by the number of people I meet here, there and everywhere around the South who tell me they love Savannah, but admit they haven't visited in 10 or more years. A lot of times, their most vivid memory was walking "down along the 'river docks' enjoying all of the attractions there." Oh, if I had a nickel.
I think we'd all agree this city is dramatically different than it was a decade ago. I don't even need to make this statement about downtown. Take the view of West Chatham County from the interstate, for example. Or that spaghetti junction they laid out at 21 and 95 in Port Wentworth. Yes, the times they are a-changin' around here.
Not everyone digs the developments, but you can count me among those who bristle with excitement when I hear about another otherwise dormant city block coming back to life. It's been happening along Bull Street for a couple of years. During that same time, a project has been bubbling at the corner of 37th and Abercorn streets in the heart of Savannah. How loudly that project has been moving along depends largely on who you ask.
Two years and roughly $2 million later, the doors are just about to open on La Scala, Savannah's newest Italian restaurant. It's an addition to the food scene that, if the guys in charge have anything to say about it, will be a palatial spot for pasta.
"I knew immediately when we walked in here that this was it," says Donald Lubowicki, who along with his partner Jeffrey Downey, has gone all in on this project. "We are ready to get this thing going."
If the names sound familiar, they should. Donald and Jeffrey are owner/operators of Circa 1875, Savannah's French brasserie on Whitaker Street downtown. They've been there for over a decade. This new spot has been in the works for a few years. We could easily say three or four years, if you go back to the first time they told me they wanted to open something Italian in Savannah.
Of course, that doesn't happen overnight. In the meantime, they attempted to make the most of their time. A couple of years back, Donald, Jeffrey, Executive Chef David Landrigan and his girlfriend spent three weeks touring Italy, eating and liking their way across the country. The trip was equal parts research and shopping for their new space. No detail was spared, even if they had, really, no idea exactly when they'd have an Italian restaurant to call their own.
If you'd like to hear an instance of life imitating art, ask the guys about the chandeliers they purchased in Florence and had shipped back to the U.S. It cost more to ship them than the purchase price.
"They disappeared at JFK," Donald says. "We'd have to go back to Florence and file a claim with the shipping company." Not exactly the Lufthansa heist, but I'm thinking a couple of not-so-goodfellas got a hold of those fixtures.
Back here in the heart of town, a complete and extremely thorough restoration of Savannah's latest home-turned-restaurant is nearing completion. Named for Milan's Opera House (circa 1778), La Scala (circa 1898) is being created to offer its guests as authentic an Italian dining experience as you will find in this area. That includes attention to every detail from their staff in attempting to create a festive, enjoyable atmosphere, where quality food drives the bus. For the record, the building's color is coral, so it's not Savannah's second pink house.
You hear all of that and see what this space looks like and you might imagine this being our city's incarnation of the legendary Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
"That is exactly what we want this place to be like," Donald says.
The menu reads like anything you will find along "The Boot." The summer version I had the chance to look at included staples like pappardelle bolognese, bucatini all'amatriciana and yes, Joe Marinelli, they are even planning to offer a carbonara. Florentine steak, fettucini with octopus, clams and shrimp are some of the others. Heading up the kitchen is Stephen McLain, formerly of Alligator Soul, with Landrigan overseeing culinary operations at both Circa 1875 and La Scala.
La Scala's bar was handmade. "We wanted something that made you feel like you were in Venice," he says. The bar area in general is a bit on the smallish side, but an adjacent front room of the restaurant will offer soft seating, couches and chairs to handle bar overflow — roughly 6,000 square feet in all. Dining capacity hovers around 130 seats, which is low for a building this size, but that tells you the space is being used differently.
Bigger doesn't always mean more seats and being elbow-to-elbow with other guests trying to enjoy a meal. A large portion of their space, indoors and outdoors, is being prepared for banquets and weddings. Yes, weddings. How so?
Part of the building includes a restored second-floor sanctuary. "This was built as an old convent in 1924," Donald says. "The nuns lived downstairs in what is now our kitchen. They worshiped up here."
It's nothing short of stunningly beautiful. Stained glass will hang in front of every window. "The city wouldn't let us replace them," he says.
Speaking of the city, that's just about the only thing, as of this writing, that stands between years of work, planning, setbacks and frustrations and making this all a reality. The city is expected to approve a certificate of occupancy any day now, at which point staff training will begin. Right now, the target date for you to be able to eat it and like it is sometime in August. I will, of course, keep you posted.
See you on TV,