Brooks Reitz

Co-owner Brooks Reitz pictured here with Melfi's brand new wood-fired Woodstone pizza ovens. Stephanie Barna/Staff

The shakerato, a mix of espresso and sugar, has been on the menu at Second State Coffee (formerly Black Tap) for at least five years. But baristas at the downtown cafe use a cocktail shaker to blend the cold drink's ingredients. 

After spending about six weeks in Italy doing research for Melfi's, Brooks Reitz had something different in mind for his forthcoming pizza and pasta restaurant.

"They put it in this machine that shakes it with ice until it becomes frothy," he says of the shakerato-making method he first witnessed at Rome's SantEustachio Il Caffè. He then encountered a similar device being used at a bar owned by Campari in Milan where they served a Campari Shakerato. 

Apparently, cafes and bars are now deploying a machine invented in Taiwan to make bubble tea in their quest for the best froth. Reitz found it hilarious and exciting, so he bought one. At Melfi's they will shake up a before-dinner Campari Shakerato and an after-dinner Branca Menta, which is a minty sister to Fernet-Branca. 

"I'm so excited about it," says Reitz. "But it probably won't be popular."

He'll find out soon enough, since Melfi's is projected to open around the beginning of September. 

Reitz and business partner Tim Mink have spent a long time getting the details right at Melfi's before even announcing an open date. Rumors about the new spot and peeks at the logo first started popping up on social media in early 2017. 

That extra time has paid off. Inside, the former church meeting space has been transformed into a clubby dining room that Reitz says reflects his more mature aesthetic. "This is definitely the most grown-up of the three restaurants," says Reitz, referring to sister spots Leon's Oyster Shop and Little Jack's Tavern located across the street from Melfi's. 

Designing a space is Reitz's favorite part of opening a restaurant. He loves when all the details come together to create a particular feeling for diners.  

The interior design juxtaposes casual formica-topped tables and upholstered green diner chairs (still to arrive) with low-backed green vinyl banquettes that he knows will make people feel comfortable, simply because they can stretch their arm along the back of them and not feel closed in. "Everything is lower, like a jazz club," he says. "They're not lurching over you."

A huge vintage wooden bar that spans almost the entirety of one side of the room was purchased from an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania and is populated with bar stools cushioned in a plush mustard-colored vinyl upholstery. It looks better than it sounds.

"Comfort is cool again," says Reitz, who believes that he's listened to his customers and is giving them what they want. "There's a whole set of customers in Charleston who are happy and willing to pay for a full restaurant experience, who are fatigued with the casualness."

While Melfi's isn't white tablecloth, Reitz says it will take reservations and have elevated service from a young and energetic staff that's passionate about food.

At night, he says the place gives off a warm glow from small golden lamps strategically placed on each table and along the bar. A subtle lighting system along the back of the banquette diffuses even more light into the atmosphere.

"I always wonder if customers know what it is they're responding to," he says. "But I wanted to make it feel really comfy and homey."

The pizza kitchen is open at the back of the space and features its own bar, where patrons can sit and watch the pizza crisp up in the wood-fired pizza ovens made by Woodstone (also the source of The Obstinate Daughter's oven). 

The kitchen is being run by John Amato, who is also a partner in this venture. He and Reitz met when they both worked at FIG. Amato joined Reitz at Little Jack's Tavern after a stint at Park Cafe. 

Reitz says they wanted to craft a pizza that was light on crust. Instead of the popular Neapolitan pizza, they are modeling theirs after Rome's pizza tonda. 

"It's thin crust," he says. "The real difference is that we have a dough sheeter that we run the dough through and it makes it really thin. ... It's a 12-inch, single-serve pizza and it's very crispy. In my opinion, it's the perfect combination of crispy and chewy. It's not so crispy it's annoying. "    

He says it's "Roman-ish" because they are taking American liberties with the toppings, offering a Supreme and one that comes topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, bacon and buttermilk ranch. "In Italy, they would be aghast."

The menu will also have fresh housemade pasta with very basic toppings. "The through-line is simplicity," he says, meaning they'll do classics like bucatini pomodoro and linguine and clams. "Pasta dishes that are simple, crave-able and familiar." 

Unlike its sister restaurants, Melfi's will only be open for dinner. Reitz says because they are making both pasta and gelato in-house, it would be too difficult for the kitchen to have to deal with lunch service. 

He is preparing to train staff, which has been the hardest it's ever been to find, and get them ready to provide an experience that is "babysitter-worthy," meaning the kind of place you go to have a shakerator or two when you don't have your kids with you. 

Follow Stephanie Barna on Twitter @stefbarna.

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