by Sherry Lucas
Late afternoon sunlight streams through the wall of windows at Cultivation Food Hall in The District at Eastover, illuminating a crucial aspect of any visit here: Choices must be made.
Dinnertime is this day’s destination, and Bocca Pizzeria has the goods to deliver. Bocca means “mouth” in Italian — surely the most direct route.
The mouth is food’s way in, but also stories’ way out…the way legacies are passed on. “That definitely ties into what we try to do here, which is make the most traditional Italian fare that we can,” says Chef Austin Lee, focusing on pizza-making strategies that’ve been in place for centuries in Italy. At this classic Neopolitan pizzeria, owed by Cristina and Patrik Lazzari (La Brioche, Whisk), that includes sauce from imported San Marzano tomatoes, naturally fermented and leavened dough paired with simple, fresh ingredients.
Lee and manager Amber Grissett fix me up with a prosciutto pizza. In it, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto Crudo, arugula and shaved Parmigiano sing in tasty harmony, from the snappy bite of arugula to the luxurious flavor of prosciutto.
A small plate of roasted Brussels sprouts offers a savory side, where pancetta, balsamic reduction and Parmigiano (along with the high heat roasting) elevate these humble buds to a whole new level. “This is the Brussels sprouts dish I use to change people’s minds about Brussels sprouts,” Lee says.
Lee brings a background of 20 years of pizza making to Bocca — “never one like this, though,” he says. “We do a two-day cold ferment on this dough, so it sits around for two days and develops all the sourdough flavor that you could ever want. … We’re getting back to the basics of Italian pizza making.”
Bocca’s simplest pizza, the classic Margherita — “red sauce, white cheese, green basil for the Italian flag” — is its most popular, Lee says, and prosciutto and pepperoni come in as strong favorites, too. Next time, I’ll bring a pal and share the Salumi, a charcuterie selection of cured meats, gourmet cheeses, nuts and more.
What’s pizza without beer? Or, salumi without wine? In a nifty bit of convenience, Bocca neighbors Gold Coast, Cultivation Food Hall’s only bar. It’s an inviting focal point at one end of the hall, where gold cushioned bar stools offer comfy, closeup views of cocktail creation.
Curated wine and beer selections join an intriguing list of mixed drinks and seasonal and classic cocktails — “a good variety of quality beverages that would cater to any of the food stalls here,” says Jonathan Shull, brand consultant for Cultivation Food Hall who oversees Gold Coast’s bar program (Shull is also owner of The Apothecary and a co-owner of Brent’s Drugs).
“We don’t believe in any sort of trends or gimmicks,” says Shull. “We believe in recipes that were created, sometimes, even 100 years ago, many of them from New Orleans.” Gold Coast and catchy cocktail names toast the area on the Pearl River in Rankin County (also known as “East Jackson”) that, during Prohibition, was known for its active nightlife, club scene, bootleggers, gamblers and more. “We do have a classic cocktail bar program, but we also try to keep it pretty fun, too, and approachable.”
In addition to Gold Coast’s spirited lineup, a “Dealer’s Choice” can dial up a sans alcohol option off-menu. “We have lots of fresh-squeezed juices and syrups and tinctures and shrubs that we can use to make a mocktail. … Our bartenders love to accept a challenge,” Shull says.
I indulge in a Woodland Club to sample Gold Coast’s best original seller. Cathead Vodka, ginger syrup, white grape, lemon and champagne combine for a refreshing splash and tickle, with depth that lingers.
“People definitely come in for our drinks, but they come back again because they feel welcome and comfortable,” says bar manager/head bartender Jessica Quinn.
Gold Coast may be the area’s sunniest indoor bar during daylight (lights gradually dim starting around 7 p.m.), “but it’s also the only cocktail bar that you can actually bring your kids to,” Shull notes. “That’s key.” It’s a food hall; park ‘em nearby with pizza or ice cream.
This visit, I also catch up with Chad Segrest, for a look ahead. His Atlas concept should be in full swing now. The tagline “Greek Down South” heralds a “slowed down” version of a cuisine that’s captured Jacksonians’ tastebuds for as long as the capital city has had restaurants.
“Comeback sauce is pretty unique and invented down here,” Segrest says, “so we’re going to have a feta comeback.” He’s also going to build on ranch dressing’s popularity with a feta ranch.
“We’re going to incorporate some basic Greek food principles that jive with people around here,” for a comfort food fusion that appeals to folks across the spectrum. Wraps, apps, salads and sides fill the bill; options include hummus, falafel, a mean Greek quesadilla and lamb gyro, redfish and ham and cheese wraps in pita or Bibb lettuce.
“I’m trying this out as a concept to see if it’s going to work, and this is just the perfect place to do it,” says Segrest, who graduated from Jackson Prep and Mississippi State University, and owns the Beagle Bagel franchise in Madison.
Greek food’s malleability, street food acceptance and broad appeal are winning aspects. “There are so many things you can do with the Greek bones, that I can apply Southern culture-type things to.”