Being a business owner over the past year has been rough. Many businesses did not survive the effects of the pandemic. As more businesses (that were lucky enough to make it through 2020) reopen, we wanted to know the experience of a local new restaurant owner who worked through the pandemic and opened the delicious Tavola Nostra Pizzeria E Cucina in Hillcrest. We sat down with owner and pizzaiolo Jeff Oliveri and asked him some questions about the restaurant opening, the food and the history behind it all.
Tell us about your background?
Well, the more interesting story is my Dad. Born in Palermo, Sicily in 1914 – as a young man, he was a soldier in the Italian Navy, and served in WWII. He ended up POW, and after humane treatment by Americans and the Allies, he decided to come to the United States a few years after the war to make a better life for himself.
My parents met in a restaurant and married in Los Angeles where my brothers and I were born.
My parents owned a restaurant In LA, and later opened an Italian food distribution business. They got out of that business once they fell in love with San Diego. They moved us 4 boys down in the early 70’s and opened a restaurant called Ross’ Pizza and Deli. The family restaurants where a hit and customers loved my parents. My Dad ended up retiring. My brothers and Mom continued to work hard and run the businesses until she decided to retire. Unfortunately, I was too young to take over the family business. I was devastated. I so wanted my own opportunity in carrying the family business.
So, I grew up in this business. My first 18 years were spent at the restaurant I stocked, grated cheese, and helped make pizza. The smells, and food of the business is in my blood, and I found it to be wonderfully intoxicating.
I ended up working in the “Corporate world” for over 25 years. I successfully held positions working in various leadership roles in operations, executive management, most recently Process Improvement, and Quality Management. However, some things were always a constant; my Mom, brothers, and I continually making delicious Italian foods, and my passion/dream to open a restaurant. I still wanted to bring back the family recipes that customers were so delighted to eat. Every week, we gather at Mom and Dad’s house to have dinner. Even after my Dad passed – we still carried on the tradition and continue to do so to this day (until I opened the restaurant) – now we meet here. We even have friends meet at mom’s because everyone knows where we are at every week.
Where did the inspiration for the restaurant come from?
Some things were always constant in my life – great Italian food. When I was kid – my parents, aunts and uncles always cooked up different Italian dishes. In my travels for work, I ate at different restaurants… took notes basically- I was doing over 30 years of due diligence. However, simple but delicious Italian is really hard to find. One thing always stayed with me… The dream of opening my own restaurant. I also wanted to bring my family recipes back to life
When my Dad passed in the mid 90’s. I made it a weekly ritual to go to visit my Mom. Of course, you can’t go over without her making great Italian food. She always made sure she we ate. Pretty soon my brothers would join me, then friends. We’d gather and squeeze in around this little table in my mom’s kitchen. Three years ago. when I finally decided, I was going to finally create my dream of opening a restaurant. I had been agonizing and struggling to come up with the right name for the restaurant. So, one night – as we sat around my mom’s little kitchen table and some friends came over to eat. It hit me – they our coming to “our table” – so, “Tavola Nostra” in Italian was born. It fit perfect! I hope everyone can feel it when they come in.
The name translates to “our table”, what does it mean to open in the heart of Hillcrest.
Well, I was about to sign a lease in another part of the county. However, when I had the opportunity to be in Hillcrest. I jumped at it, and especially here at “The Hub.” Just as I thought, I have absolutely fallen in love with Hillcrest, and the community. I cannot think of Tavola Nostra being anywhere else. It’s what “our table” is about. Everyone has been welcoming to family and I. So, being in Hillcrest means so much to me/us.
We hear the recipes were handed down from your family, specifically from your Mom, tell us what it means to offer dishes with such family history?
First, it is an honor to make and share those dishes with everyone. It’s what I knew grew up knowing. If you come try us.. you will realize we use fresh, quality ingredients. We can’t have it any other way. It’s also crazy to think some date back over 100 years. I had to literally dust-off recipes from a little book my mom kept.
How has it been opening up during Covid-19? What challenges have
Well, reminds of that comedic Airplane movie scene. “I picked the wrong time” to open a restaurant. In all seriousness, I think about how everyone is being affected by Covid19. So, I am humble and want to be at least a place where everyone feels little comfort. But to answer your questions. The challenge is trying to forecast business, our staff etc. The ripple of effect of opening, and shutting down is brutal each time it happens. This last time we had to furlough most of our team in order to have something for them to come back to. The good news is we are slowly bringing everyone back.
You have an excellent spot in “The Hub” on University Ave with outdoor seating. What do you strive for when giving guests the best dining experience?
We made some drastic changes to the inside, and for the outside because I want everyone to experience that they are stepping into our home. We surround the patio with heaters to make it feel warm and cozy. Once the inside opens back up – our customers can sit around the Pizza Bar and watch the action!
Which dishes are a “must try?” Choose three!
That’s so difficult. I believe all of it is a must try. But to answer your question. Anything Pizza or Pinsa Romana. The Pizza dough and Pizza sauce are family recipes. The Pinsa might be familiar for some. I spent time in Rome, Italy learning from masters on how to make this highly hydrated (80%). and digestible crust. It has 85% less fat and 48% less sugar than the normal chain pizza. Pasta al Pesto – We make the Pesto in house and its family recipe. Our Arancina – It’s a Sicilian delicacy, and childhood favorite of mine.
1040 University Ave B101, SD, CA 92103