Photo by Doug Trattner
Prosciutto and arugula pizza
Cole Emde and Jacqueline von Tesmar traveled and worked from coast to coast before settling down on Bridge Street in the Historic Ashtabula Harbor, where they opened Nights & Weekends, the area’s first wood-fired pizzeria. The journey and destination grow less implausible the more you learn about the couple’s backstory.
The two met in New York, but von Tesmar hails from Ashtabula while Emde grew up in Rocky River. But it was the third partner of this enterprise, Chris Capo, who served as the main inducement to set up shop in this charming lakeside hamlet.
“Chris is the part of this story that made Ashtabula most desirable,” explains von Tesmar. “When we left San Francisco, we knew we wanted to live in a small town and start a brewery or a pizza place. We hooked up with Chris and came up with our plan.”
Around these parts, Chris Capo is a member of pizza royalty. His grandfather opened Capo’s Pizza in Geneva-on-the-Lake nearly 60 years ago, making him a third-generation pizzaiolo. Granted, Capo cut his teeth on brick oven New York-style pizza and not Neapolitan, but the technique was hardly foreign to him.
“I had always been interested in wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza,” Capo notes. “I bought a home version oven and messed around with different dough recipes, cooking with wood, working with high heat. It’s a big learning curve compared to the traditional pizza.”
The final piece of the puzzle for the team was securing the ideal location, and even that ended up falling into their collective laps. Just as Capo, Emde and von Tesmar were exploring various sites around the county, a prime double storefront on Bridge Street – just steps from the harbor – became available. Built in the 1890s, the handsome space received a much-needed makeover, including new lighting, new paint, new tile and a hand-lettered, gold-leaf sign pointing the way.
There is no better seat in the house than at the chef’s counter in the main dining room. There, diners are close enough to the wood-fueled oven to feel its warmth and to watch the action, a well-choreographed dance between Capo and Emde. Like most Neapolitan pizza joints, the menu is intentionally spare, with the attention placed squarely on the pies. Start with a perfect little platter ($8) of bright green and buttery Castelvetrano olives, thin-sliced Italian salami and sea salt crackers. The housemade whipped ricotta is as light as cotton and slicked with a sweet-and-spicy chile honey. I adored the Italian chopped salad ($10), a fresh take on a classic pizzeria starter. All the traditional components are there: iceberg, pepperoncini, chickpeas, cherry toms, red onion, provolone, vinaigrette. The only thing missing is the woven wood bowl.
Cheesy bread ($8) might seem superfluous when you’re getting pizza, but the owners of Nights & Weekends know that we are powerless to resist its call. Here, the dough exits the wood oven golden brown, shellacked in a garlicky, bubbly cheese blend, and paired with marinara for dipping or topping.
By now, Capo and Emde have had about eight months to zero in on a dough recipe and familiarize themselves with the oven. Their pies are a delight to behold and a joy to eat. They exit the oven with a lovely loft, char and aroma. The dough is characteristically soft and tender but pleasantly chewy too. We enjoyed versions topped with pepperoni ($15) and prosciutto and arugula ($18).
To drink, there are white, red and sparkling wines by the glass and bottle, a handful of seasonal cocktails, and even a few choice amaris to sip on. But Emde, a homebrewer turned pro, is partial to the craft beer list, which is populated by local and regional lagers, ales and ciders.
“When I was a brewer, I would try to brew beers that would go well with the food that we were serving and I take the same approach with our beer menu now,” he says.
This learning-curve thing works both ways, adds von Tesmar. Nights & Weekends took over a spot long occupied by a convention pizzeria, and for many in the community, this is their first experience with Neapolitan-style.
“We definitely took the learning curve into consideration,” she says. “But after these first six, eight months, I feel like the word has gotten out about what we do.”
Soon, the crowds will once again swell with the annual return of vacationers, boaters and wine lovers. Ashtabula Harbor’s location near Geneva-on-the-Lake, the Grand River Valley and local yacht clubs all but guarantees a fresh crop of new faces.
“We’re in prep mode for what’s about to come this summer,” says Emde.
Nights & Weekends
1035 Bridge St., Ashtabula