Front and Center: Zocalo heats up the hub

¿Donde esta el zocalo?

If you ask this question in Mexico City– as in just about any other city or town in Latin America– you'll be pointed in the direction of the main city square, the vibrant, pulsing heart of urban life, the place to see and be seen.

If, in three or four months' time, you make a similar query in Charlottesville, you'll end up not only in the smack dab center of the Downtown Mall, but also at a new Latin-inspired restaurant called, appropriately, Zocalo.

Envisioned, owned, and operated by a trio of young entrepreneurs– manager Peter Castiglione and chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Klavans-Rekosh, Zocalo is currently in the process of breathing new life into the Central Place space formerly known as Moondance. We doubt you'd recognize it.

We walked through the papered glass doors on July 2, a mere 24 hours after Zocalo's lease began, and realized right away that these guys don't intend to waste a second. Ceiling panels had been ripped out to add height, sheet rock had been peeled away to expose an original brick wall, and the design-build team of STOA Design+Construction was preparing to knock down the central dividing wall– essential to create the feeling of openness, warmth, and positive energy that the owners say will characterize the Zocalo experience– from the 3,800-square-foot interior to the primely located patio. A sign of accents to come, multicolored ceramic sinks (for the ladies' bathroom) arrived that day from Mexico.

"Everything is coming together perfectly," Castiglione tells Dish. "Like so many people in this town, our landlord, Ludwig Kuttner, has been incredibly supportive of our ambitious renovation plans, and we are also very excited about all of the cultural developments downtown. Some don't believe it, but the Paramount will open someday."

How did Zocalo end up here? Castiglione– who has general managed and consulted at such restaurants as Michael's Bistro, Blue Light Grill, South Street Brewery, and, most recently, at Wolfie's and Club Rio– and Klavans-Rekosh, teamed up first.

While Klavans-Rekosh was waiting in line for a parking permit at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he met fellow student Silver. After graduating– and sharpening their skills at high-end restaurants from San Francisco to Atlanta– the two chefs decided to merge their culinary dreams with Castiglione's managerial magic and open a restaurant in growing, food-friendly Charlottesville (Atlanta was a close second choice).

Why Latin? That was Silver's idea. A main fixture in the Main Street Market until just last week (he worked at Feast! and Seafood@West Main and taught cooking classes at The Seasonal Cook with Klavans-Rekosh), Silver is a passionate fan of the bold flavors, authentic techniques, dried chilis, and indigenous spices of Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina– the four national cuisines which will be most prevalent on Zocalo's lunch and dinner menus.

"I love that whole energy, the passion, that infuses Latin cultures– from the music to the food to the warm-natured people," Silver says. This Latin friendliness does seem to mesh nicely with the Zocalo philosophy, which the owners refer to playfully as "Happy People Unite."

"We are not bottom-line people," says Castiglione. "If a business is fostered instead as a positive relationship, everything will evolve around those positive vibes. Enjoyment is our number one goal."

Does Zocalo have what it takes to make it in oft-changing Central Place?

"For a restaurant to succeed in Central Place," says Brazilian collard greens fanatic Emmett Boaz, "it needs to do two very different things: It needs to serve a good, quick, $5-$7 lunch, and it needs to attract an evening crowd in a much higher price range."

Boaz says Zocalo's patio is Charlottesville's best "people-watching" location. "One could spend a very pleasant summer evening there with a pitcher of sangria and a platter of appetizers if Zocalo chooses that route."

We won't argue with Emmett.