The story below is a preview from our Jan. / Feb. 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
The character and depth of Roanoke dining has taken a considerable step forward in this bold, inventive downtown restaurant.
Deep winter. Snow, wind, and the post-holiday/resolution-battles blues of January. This is the season when many restaurants slow down, with fewer people willing to brave the cold for a night out. But this is the season to embrace and create community, to discover hygge—starting with Fortunato, a new downtown Italian restaurant masterminded by the owners (plus a new face!) of Lucky.
Hygge: (pronounced “hoo-ga”) is a Danish word loosely translating to “coziness.” More complex than just a cozy feeling, it means to “live in the moment” or “create warmth and make connections with others and yourself.” It’s touted as the secret to winter happiness by the Danes. In its essence, hygge is about families and friends getting together to share a meal, a glass of wine, and good conversation—creating intimacy in the heart of a dark, cold winter.
Since opening in September, Fortunato, an Italian restaurant in downtown Roanoke featuring mostly Central and Northern Italian dishes, has emanated all that creates hygge. Upon entering the glass-fronted restaurant located on the ground floor of the century-old Shenandoah Building, guests are greeted by an open kitchen graced with a cured leg of Edwards ham, a pizzaiolo deftly managing the Italian wood burning oven, and sweeping, oversized paintings. Gold wallpaper, dark wood tables built from salvaged wood from Old Crow Distillery, warm large-format, red-light fixtures and Toobz Muir’s van door wolf painting lend an incredibly cosmopolitan air to the dining space.
This is the restaurant Roanoke has been waiting for. Every element from the silverware (perfectly weighted) to the tiny, jam-jar wine glasses to the refinished original terrazzo floors is on-point thanks to the design work of co-owner Jake Zuckerman.
The ownership and management of Fortunato is like a perfectly crafted puzzle whose pieces include Jeff Farmer, a chef who has crafted an intensely unique menu of Italian dishes, to Hunter Johnson, a mixologist whose drinks have elevated the Roanoke craft cocktail scene to epic proportions, to JP Powell, a hospitality guru with strong management skills, and Jake Zuckerman, whose eye for design and whose background in real estate development helped build the Fortunato experience.
After running the extraordinarily successful Lucky Restaurant on Kirk Ave (opened in 2010), the original three decided that, with the help of Jake, it was time to try their hand at something new in town. After being approached for several years by developers, the team pursued a relationship with Bill Chapman (also responsible for Beamers 25), whose background as a restaurateur and developer aligned with their vision.
“If we didn’t do it, someone else would have,” Johnson explains when describing how Roanoke is becoming a hot spot for developers and restaurateurs. His implication? If he and the other owners didn’t decide to open another top-notch restaurant in Roanoke, a chef from Richmond or New York or Atlanta would have. Just take Zuckerman’s reasons for moving from bustling Brooklyn to the Star City: “Coming to Roanoke, for me, was awesome because I think the city is growing and growing in a cool and responsible way.” Right now was the right time for Fortunato. Which makes us here in Roanoke very lucky diners.
The menu at Fortunato is easy to navigate. Separated into antipasti (appetizers), salumi & formaggi (meats & cheeses), insalte (salads), primo (first course—pastas), secondo (second course—meat and fish), and pizze (pizzas), as well as dolci (dessert), it’s easy to sample a bit of everything. In the spirit of hygge, whether you dine by yourself, with one other person, or with a large group, the menu translates well to a communal passing of plates. There’s an intimacy to the menu, as well as the space, which allows you to cozy up to the meal of your choosing, without feeling too led or forced into certain dining tropes.