Another Juneau restaurant empire growing

Beau Schooler makes ricotta gnocchi in the kitchen of Panhandle Provisions. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Beau Schooler makes ricotta gnocchi in the kitchen of Panhandle Provisions. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

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Another Juneau restaurant empire is taking form with the opening of an Italian restaurant next month in the space recently known as the Silverbow Bakery. In Bocca Al Lupo will be the newest restaurant venture by the people who run The Rookery Café, Panhandle Provisions and The Taqueria.

In the kitchen of Panhandle Provisions on Seward Street, Beau Schooler cracks a few eggs in a big metal bowl. He’s making ricotta gnocchi.

“A cheese-based form of gnocchi, which is an Italian dumpling,” Schooler says.

He stirs up the eggs, whole milk ricotta and some salt, and then grates in some Grana Padano, which is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s like “like parmesan’s younger cousin.”

The flour comes next. Gnocchi is usually made with potatoes, but it can be made with other ingredients, like spinach or sweet potato. It’s treated just like pasta – boiled till done and tossed with a sauce. The Rookery Café currently offers the ricotta gnocchi with a ragout made with pork from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

“When we get the Italian place open, we’ll always have one kind of gnocchi on the menu,” Schooler says.

Schooler went to Calabria, Italy in 2008 to learn the basics of Italian cuisine.

“So you get there and it’s basically like six days a week, 12 hours a day, you just eat, sleep, breathe Italian food. That’s all you do,” he says.

For the restaurant, Schooler will stay true to the roots of Italian cooking while also incorporating Alaskan ingredients. He’s working with friends who produce traditional-style fermented Italian cheese curds.

“The mozzarella that you can make with their curds is, I call it, life changing. It blows you away,” Schooler says. “So we’ll probably have a traditional Margherita-style pizza with the San Marzano tomatoes and the fresh-made mozzarella with this fermented curd and the Alaska sea salt and thin garlic. And we might play around with smoked salmon on a pizza just because it’s Alaska and you got to do something like that.”

“In bocca al lupo” is Italian for “break a leg,” though it literally translates to “in the wolf’s mouth.” The restaurant will feature handmade pasta and wood-fired pizzas ranging in price from $12-20, with entrees like roast chicken or duck costing more. The restaurant will also serve beer and wine.

Travis Smith first opened The Rookery Café in November 2010. In Bocca Al Lupo will be his third restaurant. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Travis Smith first opened The Rookery Café in November 2010. In Bocca Al Lupo will be his third restaurant. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

This will be the third restaurant opening for Travis Smith. Many of Juneau’s favorite restaurants are owned and operated by the same groups of people. Twisted Fish, Hangar on the Wharf and Pizzeria Roma all have at least one common owner. As do Tracy’s Crab Shack, Saffron, Salt and McGivney’s.

Smith started The Rookery Café in November 2010. Schooler joined the restaurant a couple of years later. They opened the deli Panhandle Provisions in June 2014, which they plan to move into the Italian restaurant location. The Taqueria opened February 2015.

Once you have the mechanics down for one restaurant, Smith said, it’s possible to open more.

“We couldn’t operate The Taqueria if we didn’t have another location where we could store their product off-site and have some prep work done because they just don’t have the space. Similarly, we couldn’t do what we’re doing in The Rookery if I hadn’t moved the bakery to a different location in 2013,” he said.

In the past couple of years, the restaurant group has gone from 12 to about 50 employees. But not everything Smith and Schooler touch turns to gold.

“We did have a little food cart operation that we shut down after a month that took us a year and a half to open. It was called the Chowder Shack, and we were just going to be selling our halibut chowder, but it turns out that that’s not something that people just wanted to buy and walk around and eat,” Smith said.

Smith is confident they have the staff and ability to run In Bocca Al Lupo, and he doesn’t plan to open any more restaurants.

“We’re going to stop at three. Essentially, our three children. The family is done,” Smith said.

Back at the kitchen, Schooler cooks the gnocchi in a small pot of boiling salted water for just a few minutes.

“Once they’re floating at the top, then they’re done. The key to these, really, is to pull them as soon as they start floating,” Schooler says.

He ladles some into a small bowl and grates some cheese.

“So that’s just pasta water, butter and then Grana Padano, and that’s kind of like how they do it over there,” Schooler says.

I plunge a fork into the bowl. Schooler’s gnocchi is sublime. Each one is a soft pillow in my mouth – a couple bites and then it melts.