Food Chatter: Q&A With Fig Jam’s Costanzo Astarita

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Chef Costanzo Astarita, a native of Italy, worked in Bermuda and the UK before moving to Atlanta and opening Ciao Bella, Baraonda, Publik, and Baroni over the last sixteen years. Baroni launched in 2010 and offered casual Italian food in the former Wolfgang Puck Express location in South Buckhead. When it wasn’t performing as hoped, Astarita and his partner, Mario Maccarrone, went back to the drawing board and created Fig Jam Kitchen & Wine Bar, which opened in late January. The restaurant, accented with multihued woods and white tiles, serves a menu of small, medium, and large plates that veer between New American (short rib sliders, hot crab dip, flatbreads topped with ingredients like truffle oil and caramelized onions) and Mediterranean (seafood stew, charred octopus with white beans, grilled poussin with Moroccan harissa).
 
Q: What prompted the change from Baroni to Fig Jam?
CA: We decided to change our Baroni concept for a few reason. When we opened Baroni our thoughts were to cater to families in the early hour from five to eight p.m., and we were expecting a more grown-up crowd after eight. We found out that we were not getting the young professionals—the twenty-five to forty-five age group—after this hour. Also we analyzed our wine and liquor sales and they were very low, less than $4.50 per customer: This told us we were catering only to families, and to be successful a restaurant needs to have a good mix of clientele. Another reason was that people always compared Baroni to Baraonda and they were not the same—i.e., Baraonda has a wood-burning oven for pizza, it has more proteins on the menu, it has a larger menu. This caused us many headaches, and after all this our thought was to come up with a new concept. I also think that the format of having an appetizer, main and dessert menu idea is slowly going by the wayside. People want to mix and match and eat their way.
 
Q: How did you and your team put the Fig Jam concept together, and what inspired the space?
CA: Fig Jam was inspired by the trend we are seeing in home design. A great inspiration came from the Meatpacking district in New York shops like World Market, Restoration Hardware are very cutting edge. We also go to the AmericasMart Atlanta to see what the showrooms are trending and what designs are going to be featured in upcoming seasons. I also follow the trends in the restaurant business that are taking place in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and European cities like London, Milan, Paris.

Q: And where did the name Fig Jam originate from?
CA: It was one of those eureka moments. We tried to come up with trendy name for about three months, but we could never decide on one we liked. As it happens I had a sample of fig jam on my desk and my partner Mario looked at it and suggested Fig Jam and that was that. We asked people if they liked it and everyone thought it was catchy and it stuck.

Q: With your restaurant company, C& M Gastronomy Group, expanding are there any other projects on the horizon?
CA: As of today there are no concrete projects but we would like to do something in Midtown, not a restaurant but a very niche orientated market with takeout prepared foods, some market items, a selective wine and beer section, a bit like the Harry’s in a Hurry that was located on Peachtree Street. It would include some dine-in area and maybe even deliveries to residences within a certain area.

NEWS AND NOTES:
On Saturday, March 10, Sweetwater Brewery will hold its third annual Brew Your Cask Off festival. The festival will run from 6 to 10 p.m. and will include live music, tours of the brewery, a souvenir tasting glass, unlimited cask samples, as well as samples of Sweetwater beers.

Atlanta television personality Alton Brown has been chosen to host the 2012 James Beard Foundation awards, to be held May 7 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The theme of the 2012 Awards is “Twenty Years of Food at its Best,” in honor of the Foundation’s silver anniversary.

The Winegrowers Association of Georgia is holding its seventh Wine Highway Weekend Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25. Participating wineries include Blackstock Vineyards, Cartecay Vineyards, Cavender Creek Vineyards, Crane Creek Vineyards, Frogtown Cellars, Habersham Winery, Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards, Tiger Mountain Vineyards, Wolf Mountain Vineyards, and Yonah Mountain Vineyards.

Atlanta chef Justin Balmes will appear in the April 22 episode of Chopped All Stars competing against seven Food Network Star season finalists.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Hunger Walk/Run 2012 will be held on Sunday, March 11 at Turner Field. The goal for 2012 is to raise $500,000 in order to meet the rising demand from the organization’s over seven-hundred partner agencies for food and grocery product.
  
Downtown. Look for Le French Quarter Cafe, featuring fresh breads, to open in the Healy Building this spring. The owner, Eric Dauce, previously served as head baker and pastry chef at Highland Bakery and Alon’s Market and Bakery.  

Creative Loafing is reporting that Mangos, a Caribbean resto, is slated to open at 180 Auburn Avenue within the next few weeks.

Inman Park. Atlanta’s outpost of Barcelona Wine Bar was named one of Travel & Leisure Magazine’s Best Wine Bar’s in America.

Little 5 Points. Thrillist notes the opening of Thai 5 & Sushi Bar, featuring Thai cuisine, sushi, bento boxes and a selection of Japanese and Thai beers and sake, at 1148 Euclid Avenue.
 
Midtown. The Midtown Patch is reporting that Organic Food Lounge, featuring a menu that will consist of mostly organic finger food/tapas, is planning on opening in the next three to six months at 239 Ponce de Leon Avenue.
 
Oakhurst. Sugar Moon Bake Shop—featuring locally made gourmet ice cream, cupcakes, and oatmeal cream pies—is going into the former Nectar spot at 707 East Lake Drive in March.

Old Fourth Ward. Condesa Coffee, a cafe and espresso bar, was recognized by coffee and espresso machine manufacturer KRUPS as having the best brews in Atlanta in its national Best Brews 2012 contest.

Karachi Broast and Grill, featuring a one-hundred-percent halal menu, is opening its second metro area location at 10971 Crabapple Road.

Stone Mountain. Eatocracy highlighted Motor City Coney Island’s Detroit style hot dogs in a recent article. The family owned spot is located at 1825 Rockbridge Road.

Question of the Week: What Atlanta restaurant company has opened a new venture in Montgomery, Alabama?
 
PS.  The answer to last week’s QOTW—What new metro-area restaurant offers Bulgarian cuisine?—is Philippopolis Tavern in Smyrna.

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