In the second-floor chapel of what was once a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, layers of high-decibel conversation bounce around the room.
I’m sitting with Jeffrey Downey and Donald Lubowicki, owners of Circa 1875 and now La Scala Ristorante, housed in a grand pink building at the southeast corner of 37th and Abercorn streets.
Across from us, restaurant staff and wine reps taste pinot noirs for the wine list. Glasses of wine are passed around. Last-minute renovation questions are lobbed and answered: Are these the right hinges? Where’s the putty?
And, of course, we’re also talking about food. For these Italophiles, it’s always about the food.
La Scala’s menu is filled with authentic Italian fare including beef carpaccio, ribollita (a delicious bean and bread soup), bistecca Fiorentina — the steak dish that Florentines are famous for — gnocchi, risotto (a northern Italian staple) and several pasta dishes. In the coming months, Executive Chef David Landrigan and Chef de Cuisine Stephen McLain plan to change the menu seasonally according to different regions of Italy.
“The pollo mattone blows my mind,” says Lubowicki. “A simple brick top grilled chicken served with figs and olives — you can taste the figs and olives in the meat itself.”
“The branzino is phenomenal,” Downey interjects. “It’s the whole fish, stuffed with lemons and artichoke hearts, and the way it’s set up on the plate — it looks like it’s swimming.”
Downey and Lubowicki speak fondly of all things Italian, including their memories of growing up in Irish, Polish and Italian neighborhoods of Detroit. It was only the Italians, they tell me, who figured out that kitchens in the basement were a smart way to beat the summer heat.
Little touches throughout La Scala recall those old neighborhoods — a stretched tapestry in the downstairs ladies room, for instance, reminds Lubowicki of visiting a friend whose grandmother always kept a tray filled with homemade cookies on her kitchen table.
Somehow, this sprawling 19th-century home — around 6,300 square feet on nearly an acre of land — feels both opulent and homey with each room functioning as a separate dining area. Named after the grand La Scala opera house in Milan and filled with antiques, Oriental rugs, silk draperies, lush artwork and richly painted walls, La Scala Ristorante has a grandness all its own. The mahogany bar at the back of the restaurant was designed by Jere Myers of Jere’s Antiques and built at his workshop in England (with the added touch of “La Scala” hand carved into its chimney breast and back bar), and stained glass windows throughout are made by Carl Fougerousse.
“The whole idea is to leave Savannah when you enter the house — you’re arriving at a 19th-century palazzo,” says Lubowicki. “At the same time, we want it to be a neighborhood hangout too.”
With fire pits, fountains and new decking, the outdoor spaces are set up for drinks and bar food, and the surrounding gardens are designed to grow into a lush paradise. A projector on the patio will play everything from Fellini films to spaghetti Westerns.
For the self-described “two boys from Detroit,” who recently celebrated 39 years together, trust and family are two important behind-the-scenes values that the owners hope customers can feel.
As Lubowicki explains, “We’re family, and we do whatever it takes to help our family members out.”
Family includes Savannah, too, and Circa 1875’s popularity meant growing in order to serve the city well. According to Downey and Lubowicki, they ran out of space the week after they opened Circa. “People were calling up and asking if we could take a party of 50 or 60, and we just didn’t have the room,” says Lubowicki.
When 119 E. 37th St. went on the market three years ago, the two jumped on it, but their bid lost to a cash buyer — that is, until the potential buyer realized the extent of the renovations the house would need. The rest is history. After three long years of meticulous historical renovation and decorating, menu planning and team building, the La Scala family was born.