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December 6, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Il Corvo chef bringing Roman-style pizza to Pioneer Square

Pizza prototype courtesy of Mike Easton

Pizza prototype courtesy of Mike Easton

The couple behind the most Italian lunch in Seattle is adding on a new Pioneer Square restaurant with a new specialty. Mike Easton, chef-owner of Il Corvo Pasta, and wife and business partner Victoria, are planning a Roman-style street pizza place to be called Pizzeria Gabbiano. They plan to open the restaurant at 2nd and Main in late spring, working with an 150-year-old starter and daily batches of hand-pulled mozzarella.

Describing the pizzas he’d like to create, Easton wrote about “the depth of flavor, the chew, and the overall satisfaction” that diners might find at Rome’s Campo De Fiore. He described a dough that wasn’t just about simplicity and quality of ingredients, but also about the time it takes to allow natural fermentation over a period of days, to develop flavors from wild yeasts, to allow starches to break down to sugars, to mix and knead by hand. After all that, he wrote, “now caramelize those sugars in a 650 degree oven, letting the bright acidity of the tomato embrace the milky richness of the hand made mozzarella, and you have in many peoples’ opinion, some of the best pizza in the world…And a pizza we will be striving to emulate at Pizzeria Gabbiano.”

The setup sounds like a pizza version of the astoundingly good, reasonably priced, and creative cuisine coming out of Il Corvo each day. That busy business is one of the places I name when people ask where to eat with just one day in Seattle, and it’s triumphed over far pricier and fancier joints on recent awards lists.

Still, adding a second restaurant seemed like a big move for a chef who once scaled down to a cash-only, lunch-only operation (the original Il Corvo on the Pike Place Market hill climb) to have more time with his wife and daughter. Even when moving to Pioneer Square last year, he made it clear he wanted to stay away from big bank loans and endless hours and other potential traps of expansion.

Turns out he’s still keeping it small, in that respect. The couple is using personal savings for the project, has one silent private investor, and is also well on the way to raising $20,000 to $35,000 in loans from Community Sourced Capital, a crowd-sourced funding business recently founded in Seattle — which is also headquartered in Pioneer Square. (What did we say about the neighborhood?) Unlike Kickstarter projects, which offer gratitude and various rewards in exchange for donations, the CSP funding is an actual loan, where investors will be repaid, though with zero interest. It’s neither a donation nor an investment, the CSP site says, it’s “a right-sized mechanism for moving money to a business in your community while still getting paid back.” Other food-related projects among its early successes include a $12,000 industrial juicer for a Long Beach cranberry farm, $6,900 in equipment for Delicatus deli in Pioneer Square, $15,050 in cheese-making equipment for Willapa Hills Cheese, and more than $20,000 to expand the Stockbox project serving grocery neighborhood deserts.

Kickstarter campaigns have been quite successful for both big and small local food projects (like this and this and this, just for starters,) so I wondered why Easton didn’t go that route, or seek out a few investors with deeper pockets. I also wondered what made him want to take on a second restaurant at all, jumping to that next level of restaurant ownership where you’re no longer always cooking on the line. On that, Easton wrote me that:

“My head is full of restaurant ideas and plans, much more so than I actually have time for. But the more Il Corvo has become a smooth sailing ship, the more time I’ve been able to make time to daydream. Daydreaming leads to investigating the possibilities, and sometimes that investigation opens doors for you. I’ve really wanted to do this pizza place for the about past 10 years, and the right opportunity finally presented itself. As far as time management goes, I will have one of my most trusted employees and friends, Johannes Heitzeberg, running the operation, he has worked with me over the past 5 years and 3 different restaurants. He’s been there since the beginning of Il Corvo and is up for the task.” The restaurants will be easier to manage being so close together, he noted, and he also lives just 5 blocks away.

As far as the financing, these were his thoughts:

“We were very picky about the type of, and $$ amount we would bring an investor in for. We didn’t like the idea of somebody with deep pockets funding the lion’s share of our restaurant, then demanding a say in how it works (they always do). We chose CSC because we really liked the fact that it is a local grass-roots kind of company. I never really liked the “free money” in trade for gifts and special treatment aspect of Kickstarter, not to mention it can be a tax nightmare.

“A community sourced loan, that we are responsible for paying back, puts a certain amount of validity in our business plan. It puts realistic expectations on the recipient to do a good job and run a good business. I feel much better about that, than counting on the kickstarter good-will alone, and as they always say: There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

True. With the precedent he’s set, though, I’m expecting an affordable and very good one.



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