Ashevilleans who love eating no-nonsense, New York-style pizza while drinking beer on a patio can rejoice. The epic 18-month project that is Manicomio Pizza is in the home stretch of construction with the goal of opening by the end of June. The prime downtown location will sling thin-crust pizza, Italian restaurant staples including subs, pasta and salads and locally sourced vegetarian options, as well as beer, wine, hard cider and coffee.
Manicomio, which means “madhouse” in Italian, is the joint project of food industry veteran and Syracuse, N.Y., native Mike Napelitano and rising kitchen star Jonathan Leibowitz. Napelitano previously owned and operated Mr. Pizza for nearly 25 years in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he formed a strong relationship with Liebowitz. After retiring from the business in 2013 and returning to Syracuse, Napelitano decided to move to Asheville in 2015 and unexpectedly found himself contemplating opening up another pizzeria.
“I moved here basically to retire. I remember walking around town and noticing that there wasn’t actually a pizzeria. There are places that serve pizza, but you’ve got to pick a table, you’ve got to sit down — there’s no easy pizza by the slice,” says Napelitano. “So I called Jon up and said, ‘What the heck are you doing? You want to come up to Asheville and open up a pizzeria?'”
Thus started the immense journey of turning an idea into an actuality. “I came up for three or four days in early September of 2015 to check Asheville out and said, ‘Yeah, this is awesome,'” says Liebowitz. From there, he and Napelitano spent four months scouting locations online and pounding the Asheville pavement, considering along the way a number of familiar properties, including the Wall Street space now occupied by Trade and Lore and the Patton Avenue spot that now houses Sonora Cucina Mexicana.
“Eventually, we landed on 27 Biltmore,” he continues. “We met the owner in January 2016 and got the thumbs-up, signed the lease in February, and from February to November, it was finding a construction company, getting the permits, etc. Construction has been going on since Nov. 1.”
Liebowitz and Napelitano are well aware of how long the process has taken and are visibly eager to finally open up the shop. “It’s been a major project,” says Napelitano. “To say it’s been a long time coming is an understatement. The architect [from Samsel Archictects] at one point told us that we’re the largest independent project going on in downtown. There’s been a ton of construction work, which is being done by Merit Construction. I think they said it was about 100 tons of debris that they took out.”
The building, which used to house Hannah Flanagan’s Irish Pub, is massive. The outdoor patio space alone, which extends from Biltmore Avenue to the back of the building, is 4,390 square feet — Napelitano says it should easily be able to host 70-80 people. Of the 8,994-square-foot, three-story interior space, Manicomio will use only the front half of the street-level floor, which should seat 50-60 guests in addition to housing a working kitchen.
Napelitano would like to see the back half of the street-level space eventually turned into a catering venue or an entirely separate business, but nothing is currently planned. The upstairs will be closed off and turned into apartments.
The vibe of the restaurant will be relaxed and family-friendly. Patrons will order at the counter, and food runners will bring the orders right to the table. The canopied patio area will include picnic tables, including small tables made specifically for dogs.
Napelitano says that he wants to make it a place where people can bring their kids and pets or just come and chat with friends over a beer or coffee. He also hopes it’ll be a spot where local food service industry workers can come to grab some quick pizza and cold beer, even if they get off work at 10:30 p.m.
Manicomio will be open from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. on the weekdays and until midnight on weekends. Delivery will most likely be done strictly by foot or bicycle and limited to the immediate downtown area.
Pricing will be affordable, says Napelitano. “It’ll be a slice and a soda for about four bucks. We want it to be a place where it’s easy; it’s not going to be one of those pretentious places that has mediocre food — you know, those places that’s a single lamb chop with two pieces of asparagus for $21.99, where you feel like you need to stop off and grab a hoagie after because you’re still hungry,” he says.
Manicomio Pizza is at 27 Biltmore Ave. and is due to open by the end of June. For updates, look for the restaurant on Facebook at ManicomioPizzaAVL or visit manicomiopizzaavl.com.