“I’m getting pretty excited, look.” Chef Eric Rivera lifted a pant leg to reveal various shapes of pasta floating on the black background of his sock. It was June 2021, and his enthusiasm for Ravello Ristorante in Montgomery, Alabama, was at full boil. After months of pandemic and supply-chain-related delays, the restaurant opened in July 2022.
The extra cook time could’ve dampened Rivera’s mood. It did not. When Ravello welcomed its first diners, Rivera was all smiles. He wasn’t the only one. Seeing the premiere plates of fresh-made pasta and other delights come out of the gleaming open kitchen was an event highly anticipated by the entire capital city.
Now, several months in, Rivera is still smiling as he discusses the inspiration and execution of Ravello and the reception it’s received. “The delays were frustrating, but it’s all totally worth it,” he says. He’s sitting at a small table on Ravello’s mezzanine looking down at an empty dining room that will soon be filled with the chatter and hum of a busy dinner service. “I wasn’t really sure how guests would respond to the absence of alfredo or basic red sauce on the menu, but we’ve had overwhelmingly good feedback.” Proof is in the 175 to 200 diners enjoying Ravello each night.
Flavors from Amalfi in Alabama
Montgomerians are diving right in to the coastal Italian cuisine of the restaurant’s namesake, a city on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It is hallmarked by less and lighter sauces, and lots of fresh seafood and veggies, all accented with bright flavors like lemon and other citrus. Relying on fewer ingredients in most dishes, the style demands quality ingredients. Ravello delivers. The pasta made daily from imported Italian flour shines in malfadine al tartufo (mushrooms, baby arugula, and truffle cream slicked on crimped-edge ribbon pasta) and scialatielli di mare (a medley of shrimp, clams, and mussels tossed with hand-rolled noodles).
Ravello also makes mozzarella and burrata in house every day. “It’s a lot of extra labor, but you can taste the difference,” Rivera says. The housemade limoncello disappears as quickly as Ravello’s team turns it out. “We have to start a new batch about every two weeks; it just flies off the bar.”
And MGM Greens, the hydroponic container farming project of Ravello’s ownership, Vintage Hospitality Group, ensures Rivera has easy access to the freshest herbs, lettuces, and leafy vegetables like swiss chard, which figure into multiple selections on the menu. Rivera’s take is on the fare found along Italy’s rugged coasts, and his approach doesn’t branch far from traditional roots. “I had a few Italian visitors the other night who said it was authentic, so that was huge,” he says.
Ristorante Ravello’s Dynamic Duo
This purity is a point of pride for Rivera, one he worked hard to nail. But he didn’t do it alone. Early in the restaurant’s concepting phase, Rivera formed a friendship with Gianluca Tolla, a chef in Pietrasanta, Italy, and drew from his new pal’s deep well of regional culinary know-how to fine-tune Ravello’s focus. (The city was named Montgomery’s sister city in 2009 as part of a cultural exchange program, and the duo has strengthened this existing bond.)
Rivera traveled to Tolla’s town; Tolla came to Montgomery in late 2019. “He taught me some techniques. He gave me great ideas on how to incorporate the coastal areas’ traditions into this menu,” Rivera says.
He made another journey to see Tolla last October, and in January, Tolla officially joins the Ravello team. “He’s moving here on a three-year visa, and he’s going to help get our ‘chef’s table’ dining going,” Rivera says. The experience debuts in early 2023 and features prix fixe five- and seven-course menus. “Gianluca played a key role in all this.”
A “Southern” Italian Twist
Rivera’s background and personality are visible in Ravello’s menu, too. The Colorado native is a fan of game, so he included wild boar in the bolognese. “There are a lot of wild boar around here, so that’s kinda Southern, too,” he says. He’s also had fun playing with Ravello’s crudo selections: “We put some twists in there. I love the tuna with saffron and kumquat.”
Squeezing new uses out of familiar ingredients is a Rivera trait and gets stirred into the fried artichoke starter. “We throw lemons in a really hot oven for hours, burn them to a crisp, then grind them up and mix what we call lemon ash into the dipping aïoli,” he says. “It’s a black-as-night dust but still very aromatic with good acid. And the speckles in the aïoli are pretty.”
The Glamour of the Rivera at Ravello Ristorante
Crowds come for the food, but the ambiance is equally enticing, thanks to the thoughtful renovation of the 1924 bank building Ravello occupies. The team took great care to preserve and refurb its significant architectural details while bringing back a touch of the “golden age” glamour of the Roaring Twenties. “The building is The Great Gatsby meets the Amalfi Coast, and that matches who we are in the food, too,” Rivera says. “It’s elegant with a little glamour, but not overdone and not too serious either.”
In the coming months, Rivera and Tolla’s collaboration will venture beyond the menu, as the Ravello team forges deeper connections with its sister city and other areas of Italy through its culinary exchange program. The vision includes dining events in both Italy and Montgomery, bringing chefs and food producers together to share food heritages. “The pandemic paused this, but we’re starting to roll again now,” Rivera says. Laying groundwork was on the agenda for his recent trip to Pietrasanta; while there, he also visited other chefs in Tuscany.
For those who don’t have plans to travel to Italy anytime soon, Rivera issues an invitation. “Come here. That’s one thing I want people to take when they leave us, the sense that they left the daily grind for a bit, left Montgomery even,” he says. “The food, the wine, and the atmosphere were designed to transport you to Italy.”