Jay and Christine Wisniewski Owners Caffe Boa on Mill www.cafeboa.com
There are two Caffe Boas in this town and unless you've been here for a while, the history might be a little fuzzy. They both claim to be the "original" restaurant but if there's one undeniable fact in their complicated histories, it's that the restaurant on Mill Avenue opened in 1994 -- though at a different location then where it sits now -- while the Ahwatukee iteration opened in 1995.
Jay and Christine Wisniewski are the couple behind the 20-year-old Caffe Boa in Tempe and as they tell it, Ahwatukee owner Scott Rennard is a former business partner and friend with whom things went sour. The couple split ways with Rennard but sold him the rights to the Caffe Boa name for use at the Ahwatukee location only. And ever since, the two restaurants have had nothing in common except their monikers.
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When it comes to running the restaurant the Wisniewskis split the duties almost right down the middle with Jay overseeing the menu and kitchen, while Christine runs things at the bar. They're both involved with the front of the house management.
The first incarnation of Caffe Boa was a 7-table "hole in the wall next to Long Wongs" on 7th Street and Mill Avenue, Jay says. They stayed at that location for 10 years before moving to the current space inside the historic Casa Loma building on the north end of Mill Avenue. Another ten years have passed -- the Wisniewskis just signed another ten year lease -- and with the anniversary comes a $250,000 renovation of the restaurant space.
The changes include updating the interior of the restaurant to create a modern, farmhouse feel with brushed metal, reclaimed wood, and chicken wire accents. They're also redoing the private dining areas, updating the bar, and renovating the bathrooms. They've revamped the menu as well, adding a few new dishes like Coniglio Pljukanci, a handmade pasta dish from Christine's native country of Croatia.
"You have to evolve," Jay says of the changes. "If you don't stay with it, you get passed over."
As passionate as the Wisniewskis are about the restaurant and its food, the topic they get the most excited about might be wine. For the last five years Caffe Boa has offered its diners the state's only all-natural wine list. The trend is just beginning to catch on at other Valley restaurants but it's something that's been a priority with these owners for years.
"My family made wine in Croatia," Christine explains. "I grew up drinking natural wine."
But what is "natural wine"? It's a complicated question since there aren't yet any guidelines for labeling wine as "natural." In a nutshell it means wine that's made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, in both the growing of the grapes and the processes of making them into wine.
What the Wisniewskis say many people don't realize is that many cheap, mass produced wines contain any number of chemical additives that winemakers aren't required to list on the label. These chemicals include preservatives, colors, flavors, emulsifiers, stabilizers and one of the most common is sulfur, which is used to kill bacteria and yeasts in the winemaking process.
Considering how aware customers are these days about organic and all nature food, Christine says shes surprised more people haven't started to ask questions about whats in wine.
"Laboratory wines are like a drag queen," Christine says. "You can't make wine for $2.99."
The Wisniewskis suggest looking for organic or bio-dynamic wines, which are made with minimal chemicals and adhere to organic and bio-dynamic agricultural principles. Not all organic, bio-dynamic, or natural will wines be labeled, but one way to know if you're getting natural wine is by knowing the importer. Jay imports through Indie Wineries, which only handles naturally made wines. You can identify their products by the star logo.
Christine says natural wines tend to have a "kombucha-like quailty" not found in chemically laden wines but also reflect the terrior more honestly.
"With these wines you can taste each [wine's] individual personality," she says. "There's truth in the sense of place."
Describe Caffe Boa in five words: Natural, pure, honest, exciting, and authentic.
The biggest change to the restaurant will be...the visual design renovations, 100% natural wine list, holistic approach to food, and cocktail menu.
How have customers tastes changed over the last two decades: Customers have gone full circle. Back to basics after being influenced by it all, all those flavors. We were all fused, meshed, mashed, punched in our face with spices. Now there is a new humbled customer, a new humbled flavor. The "know-it-all" is diminishing on all ends. A symbiotic, cooperative vision of higher quality, less fuss, less aggression of flavors and spice. A new birth of authenticity, simplicity, and a realistic service. A purist vision.
Best advice for a restaurant owner today: Dig in deep with full passion. An ancient Chinese proverb says ''Ch'i 'hu nan hsia pei,'' or "He who rides the Tiger can never get off or it will eat you." Also, keep evolving.
The new menu will focus on...the same things as the first 20 years which have made us successful incorporating only the best possible ingredients that are organically grown with least intervention of chemistry.
Where did you take inspiration from for the new menu items: The region of the Adriatic Coast, which is our heritage and is an area we know and understand well. An area rich in culture and tradition in food and wine, it's hard not to to be entranced by all it has to offer. In all that beauty and simplicity it's also so highly complex.
Your favorite new dish on the menu: Coniglio Pljukanci, or handmade Istrian pasta with Canadian free range and slow roasted pulled rabbit, black trumpet mushrooms, thyme, and Pecorino cheese.
The one dish you'd never take off the menu and why: Voodoo Penne. This dish has been a staple since day one, influenced from my time spent in the panhandle region of Florida and New Orleans. Even 20 years later, it is the #1 best selling dish on the entire menu!
The hardest thing about being a restaurant owner is... Several things. It is the hardest yet most energetic work one can do. The upkeep of daily paperwork, filings, projected costing, financial reviews, etc. It's a business and must be treated in terms of seeing the past and projecting future numbers, costs, balance sheets, income statements, percentiles etc. You really cannot see where you are going if you don't know or understand where you've been from a numbers standpoint and stick firmly by those percentages. Also, the high percentage of turnover compared to any other business out there which requires training by us, the only constant. It's exhausting.
The hardest thing about being a chef is...keeping the consistency of quality at all times when you cannot be on the line all the time. Great people make all the difference and I'm blessed to have a talented and loyal sous chef who has been with me for 16+ years. He is family to us.
Your favorite cook book and why: From the beginning a classic influence was/is Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food and Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant.
The biggest influence on your style of cooking: My travels and my extended family.
Your favorite local restaurant and what you like to order there: Posh Restaurant and Josh's Okonomiyaki! He is always forward thinking, evolving and creative and also a wine guy with a defined palate to match his food. Let's not forget his selection of sakes as well. We are lucky to have him in the Valley. We are always anxious to go back to see what he can create for us on the fly any night of the week.
Your favorite drink and where you like to get it: Peter Kasperski's Cowboy Ciao/Kazbar for the cocktails using digestifs as well as the most broad selection of wines from unsung regions to excite.
Phoenix has lost...generally speaking, it's soul for trusting your palate and your intuition with what you truly like without thinking what the other guy next to you thinks of you. Many play it WAY too safe in terms of food and wine selection. Seems like ambiance is always a crowd pleaser over food/substance.
Phoenix could use more...natural wine bars; this is what makes the New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles areas shine. Wine lists that focus on honest made wines from unknown and cost friendly regions. These wines are such a treat for tired palates that taste hundreds of wines a week.
One national or international restaurant you admire and why: Glasserie in Brooklyn. Rabbit 3 ways? Wow. An amazing low key environment, add the wow factor for a wine list and cocktails based on focused selections.
Your favorite wine or wine program right now: Tie between Bianco's [Pizzeria Bianco} at Town and Country and Pizzicletta in Flagstaff. Danielle from Bianco and Caleb at Pizzicletta really deliver the goods that excite the palate with honestly made wines that match the like food. In a few weeks Classic Italian in Tempe will open and I've seen the wine list Azhar has put together, big props for all natural and I'm excited to visit often.
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The next big trend in food and beverage will be: Family-style dining with small bites, relaxed prices, people, wine, chill atmosphere. Wine and food without fuss. Honest ingredients to boot.
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