Celebrating its fifth anniversary, ROIA Restaurant explores the French and Italian foodways on its seasonal menus rooted in the relationships executive chef/owner Avi Szapiro has developed with local farmers, artisan producers and fishermen. ROIA’s focus on the two cuisines stems from the pivotal role they played in Avi’s training and professional experience, shaping his approach to cooking – early in his career, he worked in France and subsequently embraced Italian food during his tenure at the San Francisco Bay area’s famed Oliveto. Even the restaurant’s name speaks to Avi’s passion for French and Italian food; it references the Roia River that flows along part of the French - Italian border. It is also evident in ROIA’s décor and atmosphere, which blends the space’s circa 1912 Old World style with the casual comfort of a contemporary French or Italian brasserie.
Executive Chef / Owner
Bogota, Colombia native Avi Szapiro was just 13 years old when he discovered his passion for cooking in the family kitchen. He became enthralled by experimenting with recipes and began to recognize the power of food, how it brings people together and how it is at the heart of so much of life’s most memorable moments. By 15, Avi was thinking in terms of cooking professionally, but was also drawn to the notion of a law career. Indeed, with high school graduation pending, he was so torn, his mother suggested he intern at a restaurant and at a law firm to gain clarity. At the conclusion of the exercise, Avi knew the direction of his future.
“I realized how much I enjoyed the alchemy that happens when you cook. I could absorb myself in the act of cooking and I could do it passionately and with great focus. Not the case with my studies or many other activities. I was able to engage my intellect, senses, work with my hands – I was fully engaged. I loved it,” recalls Avi.
Having determined the what of his future, Avi addressed the how, weighing the advantages of studying in France versus those of a degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. While doing so, he undertook a journeyman’s education, working at the Bogota Plaza Hotel, before heading for Paris to learn French and work at Le Dôme, one of the city’s most enduring brasseries. He was back in Bogota subsequently and spent eight months in the kitchen at Harry Sasson, a perennial on “Best Restaurants in South America” lists.
In 1998, Avi enrolled in the CIA, which led to his first experience in a Michelin-starred kitchen as the apprenticeship part of the program led him back to France and to Lyon’s Restaurant Pierre. The training he received there fostered the love of French techniques and French classics that are elements of his cooking to this day.
Upon graduation, Avi moved to California to work at Oakland’s famed Oliveto. There, Avi developed his affinity for Italian cooking, as well as refined his appreciation for a farm-to-table restaurant operation and the local sourcing it represents. “Oliveto was unique. The entire menu changed daily. It was dictated solely by what the farmers were sending us, by what the fishermen had that day. The huge emphasis on local product meant we made our own olive oil and vinegars, ground our own polenta, dry-cured our own prosciutto – in fact, made all our salumi – and cured our own olives. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, a whole new ball game!”
Avi then accepted a position at Foliage in London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which earned a Michelin star during his tenure. “The hotel had a very clear goal, to get the Michelin star. We worked tirelessly to make sure that was what happened. It was probably the toughest kitchen I worked in, yet it was a great learning experience, so rewarding.”
Once the hotel’s Michelin aspirations were realized, Avi was ready for a new challenge. He returned to the U.S. Succumbing to New York City’s siren song as the world’s “culinary capital,” he settled there and started his first entrepreneurial enterprise of importing truffles from Spain. It was a business he chose primarily to meet such giants in the restaurant industry as Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Tom Colicchio as a way to get to know their kitchens.
While the business was an economic and networking success, Avi missed cooking and switched gears to get back to it. Avi entered the non-profit arena to take charge of the Food Services Department at the SYDA Foundation, dedicated to the worldwide instruction of meditation. It meant adopting an entirely new approach to cooking for him, because all the meals his kitchen prepared were vegetarian. His nine years with the foundation also introduced Avi to another food genre, Indian. He spent 18 months on the sub-continent with one of SYDA’s affiliate organizations.
His time with the foundation was also pivotal for Avi personally as he met Meera Laube, SYDA’s director of events, who would become his wife and, a decade later, a partner in his first restaurant venture.
Brooklyn, NY’s white-hot food scene prompted the couple to move there in 2010. And Avi embarked on another new culinary course, that of consultant helping restaurants and food service operations be more effective, efficient and financially secure. One project put him on the radar of Francis Moezinia, an owner of New Haven, CT’s historic Taft Apartment Building, which had been built as the Taft Hotel in 1912. Francis asked Avi to take a look at the restaurant space in the Taft to get his input and to determine if he might have an interest in becoming its operating partner.
Avi fell in love with the space, which was originally the hotel’s grand dining room, and saw an opportunity to re-invigorate it, which would dovetail with Francis’s commitment to contribute to the economic and cultural development of downtown New Haven. So 2011 saw Avi and Meera moving into the Taft 11 floors above the restaurant space, to begin the extensive renovation that would result in March 27, 2013’s debut of ROIA Restaurant & Café.
ROIA showcases Avi’s seasonally informed food, inspired by French and Italian cuisines and rooted in local sourcing. It is food that delivers maximum flavor with a minimum of ingredients, food that combines culinary restraint with dynamic creativity to do so.
When asked what he finds so appealing about his profession, Avi states, “Feeding people, making people happy, watching how food can transform people.” He goes on to address the power of food, which was a major component of his initial attraction to cooking. “Food can bring joy, health, vitality, delight. It can also bring about huge problems: Obesity, heart problems, emotional and physical complications. When food is taken in the right way and with respect, it can be medicinal. Abuse it and it can become poison. Food has such an amazing power, it all depends on how we relate to it.”
Open Tuesday through Sunday, lunch & dinner.
261 COLLEGE STREET * NEW HAVEN, CT 06510 * (203) 200-7045