When O4W Pizza owner Anthony Spina first told me he wasn’t going to serve his fan-favorite Grandma Pie at Nina & Rafi, the new BeltLine restaurant he and Billy Streck opened at the end of 2018, I was surprised. As someone who thought the Grandma Pie was coming back to the neighborhood where it first gained a cult following (the restaurant moved from Old Fourth Ward to Duluth in 2016), I was admittedly disappointed. But Spina’s reasoning to leave the Grandma Pie at O4W is sound—he doesn’t want to be known for just one thing.
“The success of the Grandma Pie was unexpected. I didn’t come to Atlanta expecting to sell Grandma pizza,” says Spina. “Whenever you bring something original to Atlanta and it’s good, it’s a no-brainer win-win.” But win or not, Spina is not the type to pigeonhole himself as a chef. “I get bored easily and like a challenge,” he says.
Beyond the creative reasoning, Spina also noted that the cast-iron pans he uses to make the Grandma Pies are also increasingly hard to find. Spina says he has been digging through old restaurant supply stores in New York to find pans. “I’m hurting in Duluth with running out of pans. That scared me [as Nina and Rafi’s opening neared] and made me put the brakes on.”
“We didn’t want Nina & Rafi to be defined by one pie because Anthony’s super talented,” Streck adds. Instead, the restaurant serves Jersey rounds, a new “Super Margherita” that has a similar flavor profile to the Grandma but is round and cooked on the oven’s surface, and Detriot-style pizza, which has a lighter yet thicker crust than the Grandma Pie. “I’m more proud of the crust on the Detroit than the Grandma Pie because it’s a lot harder of a crust to achieve and keep airy.” Spina says. “A lot of people confuse it with a Chicago-style pizza because of the [crust’s] thickness. But in reality, Chicago pizza is [baked in] a deep dish; it’s not a thick crust.”
Spina likens the way the cheese bakes around the sides of the Detroit crust to his childhood favorite—Pizza Hut. “Honestly, I’ll tell anybody … Pizza Hut crust can stand up with pretty much anybody’s pizza crust,” he says.
If you are still not happy about Grandma’s absence, the partners say they may have her “come to town” on certain days as a pop-up, but the focus at Nina & Rafi is larger. Rather than a pizza restaurant, Spina and Streck aim for it to be a true Italian-American restaurant. “That’s what we both grew up on. I’m from Albany and Anthony’s from Jersey,” says Streck. “You might come just for the [pizzas], but you’re also going to come in to try all these other creations that Anthony’s coming up with like the lasagna and eggplant parm.”
For Spina, the menu direction is all about nostalgia. “I’m Italian, but I’m Italian-American. I used to get sent to school with spaghetti sandwiches. That’s all I eat,” he says. “I’m a red sauce guy, and that’s what I really wanted to focus on.”
“When I think of being a kid, it makes me happy, so I want to give everybody else that same opportunity.” he continues. “We wanted to create that feeling like Grandma’s cooking—she puts her love into her food. When I cook, I just want to make people happy.” 661 Auburn Avenue Northeast, 404-549-8997