Communal dining adds socializing to the menu at area restaurants

It’s evening. You’ve just finished work, decide to stop in a restaurant for your favorite dish, and the hostess offers you a table shared with folks you don’t know.

Don’t be put off. It’s a growing trend that’s been well received around metro Atlanta, according to Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“It started gaining popularity after Sept. 11,” Bremer said. “That’s when you started seeing that people wanted to sit together and not be by themselves.”

For owners of two local restaurants, the sharing of tables, also known as communal dining, is simply a matter of spreading joy, food and even culture.

Portuguese couple Maria and Jose Emidio Sapeta sometimes introduce diners to one another at monthly communal lunches held at their Sandy Springs restaurant, Emidio’s. Everyone there is friendly, and the atmosphere is surprisingly comfortable for a newcomer.

In Midtown, Italian native Luca Varuni, the exuberant co-owner of Varuni Napoli, regularly welcomes patrons as friends and extended family to the communal tables in his restaurant.

“I’m a guy who loves to be around people,” Varuni said. “If I’m not making pizza, I’m on the (restaurant) floor. People love that.”

Returning patrons often greet Varuni with a hug and a chat before entering a long line to order their meal.

Varuni Napoli’s menu features Neopolitan pizza. Popular selections include SpaccaNapoli pizza made with taleggio cheese, oak roasted mushrooms, carmelized onions, truffle oil and pecorino romano; and King of Napoli, with mozzarella, plum tomatoes, Vesuvius cherry tomato, hot capicolla, pecorino romano and basil. You also can create your own Margherita pizza.

Born in Naples, Varuni comes from a family of chefs and started to develop his own cooking skills at age 14. He and partner Giancarlo Pirrone opened the restaurant in a former manufacturing warehouse in April, where the pizza makers working in the open kitchen and the dining area featuring white horizontal communal tables are a natural fit for a social setting.

Tables can comfortably accommodate eight diners, but Varuni acknowledged that communal eating isn’t for everyone. There are a few smaller tables for two and a long dinner counter with seats facing the kitchen.

Patrons at the restaurant on a recent evening appeared to take the idea of shared tables in stride.

“Sometimes you talk to people you don’t know,” said diner Jason Ewing.

“I think it’s new to Atlanta. It’s very European. I think it’s great,” added his friend, B.J. Guthrie.

Like Varuni, the Sapetas welcome diners as friends at Emidio’s, where they serve a special Portuguese lunch with communal seating on the first Sunday of each month. (At other times, their restaurant features regular seating.)

The Sapetas are from Madeira, Portugal. “I think culture and food go hand in hand,” Maria Sapeta said. “We want people to mingle with us. We like to share. That gives us a lot of satisfaction.”

Her husband’s parents were chefs. He serves meals family-style at the communal lunch as his mother did at home in Madeira. “The house was always full of people and my mom would put all of the food on top of the table,” he said.

Maria Sapeta said it’s a great way to introduce people who are not Portuguese to the culture.

Emidio’s regular menu features Portuguese, Spanish and Italian meals. The Portuguese dishes are greatly influenced by Africa.

“Our food is a little different from the (Portugal) mainland. Madeira is close to the coast of Africa. We eat a lot of collard greens, and Jadineira (beef stew with vegetables served with rice),” Jose Sapeta explained.

Menu items include Carne a Alentejana, with cubes of lean pork marinated with wine and garlic, and cubes of potatoes and clams; and Zuppi Dippicci, a seafood stew with capellini and a marinara sauce.

Portuguese dishes, grilled sardines and salted cod were popular at the July communal lunch.

It was the second visit to the restaurant in three days for Aida Moreira, a native of Portugal, and her 11-year-old daughter, Catarina. The family had moved to metro Atlanta from Rhode Island that week.

“My husband discovered it during his business travels,” Moreira said. “Very nice food. I came to socialize and get to know people.”

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