Soon after New Jersey transplant Anthony Spina opened O4W Pizza in Atlanta’s Irwin Street Market in 2015, his signature Grandma Pie became a sensation, gathering a cultlike following and “best-of” accolades from dining critics.
But in 2016, Spina left Irwin Street for a restaurant on Main Street in Duluth, where his famous 16-inch square pan pie continued with the motto “Welcome to Grandma’s House,” and he experimented with other regional favorites, including takes on Connecticut- and Detroit-style pizza.
Now Spina is back in the Old Fourth Ward with Nina & Rafi. The new full-service Italian-American restaurant and bar in partnership with Billy Streck (Cypress Street Pint & Plate, Hampton + Hudson) is located at SPX Alley on the Eastside Beltline, a stone’s throw from the original O4W location.
Fans of the funky Irwin Street stall may be surprised by the build-out from Atlanta’s Smith Hanes Studio, which evokes casual elegance with vintage lighting, wood and tile floors, and garage doors. A spacious bar area, banquette seating in the dining room, and a large open kitchen with four state-of-the-art PizzaMaster ovens complete the look.
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Even more surprising, though, the Grandma Pie isn’t on the menu. Instead, Spina is offering all sorts of newer pies from O4W Pizza, along with starters, sandwiches, salads and stromboli, plus some entrees. And Streck’s bar program aims for variety with 10 taps for draft beer, classic cocktails, and a solid selection of wine.
Recently Spina and Streck sat down at the bar at Nina & Rafi to talk about their partnership and explain what happened to the Grandma Pie.
“Basically, we liked what each other did,” Spina said. “My wife and I always enjoyed going to Cypress and Hampton + Hudson for the cool atmospheres. And he really liked my pizza.”
“We’re both from the North,” Streck said. “He’s from Jersey. I’m from New York. We’ve been working on this project for over two years. I noticed when Anthony moved up to Duluth, the Old Fourth Ward refugees were walking around crying.”
“Nina and Rafi are our Italian grandmothers, and it’s all about food and family and love,” Spina said. “They believe if they love you, they feed you.”
With that in mind, Streck noted that the design was essential to the concept: “We really wanted it to feel like a fun New York-New Jersey kind of thing,” he said. “And when you come in, you feel like you’re somewhere a little bit different from what’s going on right now on the Beltline.
“We wanted the food, the atmosphere, the culture of what Anthony does, and then bring in a bar element to it. We wanted to have some separation between the bar and the dining room, so it’s almost like two experiences.”
Explaining the menu, Spina goes back to his Italian-American heritage, and his love for hearty, simple “grandma” cooking.
“I want to offer a little more than just pizzas,” he said. “There are four or five more sandwiches going on the menu, and a couple more appetizers. The focus is the food I grew up on as a kid. There are a lot of great Italian restaurants here. But I want to do Italian-American comfort food. There’s going to be eggplant Parm and lasagna on the menu, and homemade sausage and peppers.”
Asked to address the no Grandma Pie policy, Spina flinched a bit, then laughed.
“It was a hard decision to not put it on the menu,” he said. “It will definitely show up here on occasion. And, who knows, maybe one day it will show up here for good. But I’m the one who made it. If I never made it, I think people would still love O4W Pizza, because the pizza would still be great. So I kind of wanted to make something else here that would be like what Nina & Rafi is known for.
“The Detroit is really popular. But we have this Super Margherita, which is basically the makeup of a Grandma Pie, but it’s a round pie, not cooked in a pan. That will probably be the Nina & Rafi pie. It’s cooked at a high temperature on a stone, and it’s really crispy, just like the Grandma Pie, and it’s finished the same way.”
661 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-549-8997, ninaandrafi.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Nina & Rafi in O4W