The City Magazine Since 1975

Renzo

October 2018
Renzo
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

384 Huger St. - (843) 952-7864 - renzochs.com

(Left) Renzo’s small plates include octopus tentacles in romesco sauce served with crispy potatoes and charred shishito peppers; (Right) Chef Evan Gaudreau opened Renzo with Nayda Freire and her husband and co-owner, Erik Hutson, in April.

The building that has hugged the northwest corner of Huger and Tracy streets since 1915 has never looked so good. Renzo’s beautifully preserved exterior gleams with fresh white paint as eager diners wait on narrow sidewalk benches bookended by topiaries. Globe lighting emanates from within, where stripped wood flooring and an ornamental pressed-tin ceiling hint at the building’s past life as a community grocery. Yet Renzo channels more of a posh Chelsea eatery vibe than that of an old corner store.

Nayda Freire and her husband and co-owner, Erik Hutson, have a short commute. They live upstairs. (They also own the popular bar Faculty Lounge across the street.) In 2012, when they first moved in, the building’s ground-floor commercial space sat empty, as it had for decades, waiting to be reborn. Hutson, an architect and woodworker, tackled the redesign as the duo navigated city zoning hurdles. In early 2018, Renzo opened its doors.

Beyond the brass-wrapped bar, Renzo’s wood-fired oven blazes in the small kitchen that Hutson converted from a 1940 cinderblock addition to the original structure. Pizzas are shoveled in and out of flames as chef Evan Gaudreau (who did stints at Xiao Bao Biscuit and The Ordinary) studies incoming order tickets. Freire herself polishes glassware behind the bar to accommodate the evening rush, keeping a watchful eye on her staff’s friendly service, but conversing easily with patrons. At right, groups of two to six pile into sleek, raised booths flanked by a tactile denim-lined wall.

(Above, left to right) The Big Rob pizza is topped with rapini, mozzarella, Calabrian chilies, and optional salumi; Renzo’s bar is stocked with natural wines, while dessert includes a guava pastelito sundae adorned with crumbled cookies.

You might start your evening with an Adonis cocktail, a somewhat potent drink of dry sherry, vermouth, orange bitters, and flecks of sea salt served in gold-rimmed vintage glassware. Or opt for the house limoncello softened with rose water. Whatever you sip, be sure to nibble on the fennel-dusted assortment of warm olives cured with bay and citrus. Next up: fat little agnolotti stuffed with Castelrosso cheese, the pasta pouches swimming in a faintly sweet, ethereal honey reduction I’m going to nickname “fairy water,” all scattered with flower petals. Sublime.

At Renzo, small plates are meant to be shared, though there’s no guilt in hogging one all to yourself; try the pair of meaty, scorch-tipped octopus tentacles nestled on a schmear of rich, spicy romesco, with crispy potatoes and shishito peppers (a heartwarming dish, for sure). Pasta offerings vary on any given night, but if you see rigatoni on the menu, be prepared to elbow out other diners for the broad noodles ladled with light basil-tomato sugo, chunks of coarsely ground Roman sausage, pine nuts, and grated parmesan.

Then there’s the pizza. You’ll want to experiment to find your personal favorite. Heat-seekers should try the Elote, a whimsical take on Mexican street corn using blistered shishitos, charred creamed corn, and a dusting of guajillo, with a fresh lime wedge to brighten it all up. The Mayor Quimby comes dotted with littleneck clams embedded in a salty, creamy sauce that slides off the pizza’s surface if you’re not careful. I suspect most are meant for knife-and-fork consumption, but if you’re opting for hands-on, note that the sometimes aggressively charred crust gets all over your fingers and your napkin. I found myself dragging leftover crust through the Vesuvian slurry of oil and ash remaining on my plate post-feast, then washed it all down with a silky house red.

During the past hundred years, the Renzo space was home to a deli and grocery.

At press time, many of the seasonal dishes I tried, such as heirloom tomatoes and butte beans scattered with red basil and cloaked in tonnato—a sauce my well-informed server likened to a “whipped tuna aioli”—will be in the rear-view mirror. But whatever chef Gaudreau dreams up next is worth sampling, particularly if he offers a fish special. On my visit, veteran fisherman Mark Marhefka had just dropped off a few vermillion snappers, which Gaudreau served skin-on over fiery pumpkin purée, topped with salty slivers of preserved lemon, shaved garlic, and a heaping tousle of freshly plucked mint, flat-leaf parsley, basil, and sunflower sprouts. Yes, please.

Renzo has a winning combination of friendliness, spunk, intimacy, and originality. One hundred years ago, locals swung through this very door for grocer Edward McSweeney’s quarts of Charleston-made Freyschmidt’s ice cream. Ten years later, they bought their Easter hams from grocer Charles Wolff and his wife, Emma. During the Great Depression, residents hit up the hard-working Finkelstein family (Polish immigrants) at this very address for cut-rate goods, and in the late ’40s, folks sourced deli meats from grocer Mordecai “Mordy” Doobrow. Fast forward to today and you can step into Renzo for naturally leavened pizza topped with lamb and zhug, then try a scoop of tart passionfruit sorbet submerged in champagne. The times, they are a-changin’.

The Draw: Exotic pizzas, creative small plates, and “natural” wines in a stylish setting
The Drawback: Tiny parking lot, but try your luck with street parking in the surrounding neighborhood
Don’t Miss: Agnolotti, fire-roasted octopus, and pizza with littleneck clams
Price: $7-$18