Does size matter? New eateries say yes and no

Christmas came early this year for Charlottesville. And I'm not talking about the snow. Two– yes two– locally owned and operated restaurants opened on the evening of Friday, December 12– one with a bang, the other with a wide-open whisper.

You could've followed your buzzing ears to the Downtown Mall's Central Place on that frosty Friday night. Call me crazy, but even the lights on the Christmas tree outside seemed to pulsate with energy and box-shaking anticipation.

Zocalo, the lively, Latin-inspired restaurant, bar, and gathering place owned by manager Peter Castiglione and chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Klavans-Rekosh, was packed by 7pm with effervescent diners and drinkers.

"We're really slammed," Castiglione told Dish. "We didn't think it would be this crowded on the first night." Was it the full-page ad with its tantalizing menu, or the general crescendo of interest sustained throughout the four-plus months of demolition and design?

Whatever the explanation, the Zocalo team seemed able to handle the crowds. Most parties without reservations waited less than 20 minutes for a table, and– at least from my perch on the edge of the martini and mojito-bedecked concrete bar– it seemed like most were happily nibbling away at colorful plates of "Citrus and Tequila Cured Salmon," "Chili Broth Steamed Mussels," "Key Lime Free Range Chicken," and "Mexican Chocolate Bread Pudding."

Besides the nimble staff and surprising, sensual cuisine, one of Zocalo's virtues is its sheer size. I never realized how cozy and petite most places on the Mall are until I stepped into the vast, warehouse-like Zocalo. Together with the innovative, contemporary-industrial design by STOA (think Mas times six), the size of Zocalo instantly transports you to someplace bigger– New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires (okay, maybe when the outdoor patio opens).

It's all about exposure-­ exposed brick, exposed ceiling ducts, exposed concrete floors, light-toned wood– not to mention "seeing and being seen" yourself. Moondance regulars will have a hard time recognizing the more intimate, multi-roomed establishment they came to love– the few I met at the bar seemed pretty giddy indeed.


Open wide for big mouth

Considering its name, you would've expected Big Mouth Pizza to open with a shout, not a shush. Yet, much like Zocalo (though on a smaller scale), this jazzy little pizzeria-bar-restaurant on West Main (just across the bridge from Starr Hill), was also abuzz with activity on its opening weekend.

And that's a surprise considering the fact that the banner outside still read "coming soon." Owner Frank Cramblitt decided to open with borrowed furniture and a limited menu to get things rolling slowly and surely. Since he and his manager seem to know just about everyone in the Downtown restaurant world, slow is a very relative term.

Just two days after opening, "We've been incredibly busy so far," Cramblitt said from behind the concrete and stainless steel bar (inspired by the one at Higher Grounds).

Behind him, staffers prepped and boxed signature pizzas for take-outers (like me) or for those eating in the gallery-like dining area with its deep orange, lime green, and red walls and paintings by local artist Glenn Bangley.

Made from Cramblitt's secret family dough recipe, Big Mouth's pizza crust is both thick and light and crisp, almost baguette-like (they're par-baked at Albemarle Baking Company, after all). Pizza toppings include "the reds" like the Big Mouth Extreme and the Venice (spinach, ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, Italian sausage) and "the whites" (made with a homemade parmesan, pesto, and olive oil "sauce") like the Vegetarian and the Big Kahuna.

Too many to list, especially if you consider all the custom options! In a week or so, Big Mouth's full menu should be available-­ apps, salads, entrées, sandwiches, and desserts. Makes you wonder how so much bounty can fit into such a small space. Must be part of Frank's secret.

Big city vibes at Central Place.