It seems as if Italian food is always synonymous with family. At Savoy Pizzeria and Craft Bar in West Hartford, owner Dante Cistulli considers every member of his project a family member—from his staff, his partners with Max Restaurant Group, the guests, and of course his own family. Cistulli, who previously worked as an employee with Max Restaurant Group for six years, is now the owner of the latest installment to open within the group and it is also Max’s first pizzeria. Cistulli spent years working in various restaurants and pizzerias, where he began to formulate his dream of one day opening his own restaurant. When Rich Rosenthal, owner of Max Restaurant Group and founder of the flagship restaurant Max Downtown, approached Cistulli about opening a pizzeria, Cistulli says he was “flattered and shocked that the opportunity of a lifetime was coming at me at 34 years old.” However, opening a new Max restaurant did not come without stress. Cistulli explains the pressure he felt to fulfill the confidence both guests and his partners had for this new restaurant— “[t]here’s a trust here. Guests trust that if we’re a part of the Max Restaurant Group, it’s almost safe to come here in a way. You’re not just trying a new pizza place, you’re trying a new Max Restaurant Group.”
Wanting to mirror his favorite pizzerias in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Cistulli and his designers utilized the pre-existing interior elements of the space such as exposed brick, built a full craft cocktail bar, and created a modern, slightly rustic, and uniquely urban restaurant. From the Ferrari Red awning to the wooden features throughout, Cistulli says “we want you to feel like you’re stepping out of West Hartford when you come in here…it feels like an old Brooklyn, old New York feel.” To distinguish himself from other nearby pizzerias while living up to the expectations and standards that are attached to the Max name, Cistulli wanted to create artisanal pizzas that are more often found in southern Connecticut, Boston, or New York than in the central Connecticut area.
Authenticity and artisanal menu items were key ingredients to drawing attention to the new kid on the block. Cistulli says “I don’t think this pizza place is better than any others, I think it is different. There’s no pizza place in the area like this one where you can go and get a craft cocktail and sit in a super hip bar with some really great people and order great pizzas and entrees and salads all in the same place.” Cistulli enjoys having the ability to recommend so many different combinations of menu items. The first combination that comes to mind? “Right off the top, I’d go with a Joey Ravita pizza (prosciutto, fig spread, asiago, goat cheese, arugula, hot honey drizzle), some burrata with our strawberry salad (Starlight Farms farm greens, candied walnuts, gorgonzola creamy dressing, and radishes), and the Rocky cocktail (gin, Italian vermouth, bitters, ginger beer).”
Additionally, Cistulli notes that all ten pizzas offered are created with the same thought and precision that a chef would apply when creating a full entrée for a menu. The ingredients are elevated as well— Savoy sources many farm-to-table ingredients and Cistulli makes fior di latte and burrata in house. Current big sellers on the menu include the Queen Margarita (fior di latte, basil, parmesan); Jersey Shore (meatball, fontina, cherry peppers, parmesan), Spicoli (brussel sprouts, fontina, pancetta, onion agrodolce, parmesan), Joey Ravita (prosciutto, fig spread, asiago, goat cheese, arugula, hot honey drizzle); Flower Power (cauliflower, garlic oil, caramelized onions, fontina).
Cistulli notes that there is some special or nostalgic element to nearly all of the items on the menu. The Joey Ravita pizza was inspired by his grandfather’s best friend who grew figs and tomatoes in his yard all summer long. When it came time to name Savoy’s fig pizza, Joey Ravita was a sentimental, yet fitting choice. Even the ovens hold personal meaning to Cistulli— “the one on the left is Massimo and in Italian that means Max. We wanted to keep it aesthetically separate but we really want people to know we’re a Max restaurant.” The oven used to cook all of the pizzas, Formica, is named after Cistulli’s great-great-great grandfather, who lived in Sicily and had a bread oven under his house, which he would let neighbors bake their bread in for a small fee.
Cistulli emphasizes that even though he always dreamed of owning his own pizzeria, he would not have found such success had it not been for the assurance and integrity of his partners at Max Restaurant Group. He cites his family and 47 staff members as integral to his ability to open Savoy. “It’s like having a baby, it doesn’t come with a manual. This place wouldn’t be what it is without Max, I’m just one piece of the puzzle. It really took everyone one of us to make it happen.”
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