Prati is an eclectic, food-centric neighborhood in Rome, so when Jacksonville Chef Tom Gray transformed contemporary-American eatery Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails into a scratch-made Italian concept, Prati Italia, coming up with a restaurant name came easy.
Prati Italia, located just west of the St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville, is the most recent creation by Chef Gray.
After Canadian chain, Moxie's Grill & Bar, was set to expand in Florida, according to Jacksonville.com, Gray took the risk of rebranding his entire concept.
In other words, when life gave him lemons, he said screw the lemonade, bought oranges and sliced them for garnishes on his Aperol Spritz.
“It’s been an exciting adventure,” said Gray. “It’s a little unusual how we got here, but in the end, it was a great transition.”
On Jan. 29, Prati hosted a tasting in the renovated rooftop area, warmed with heaters, cocktails, conversation and carbs. Lots of carbs.
After the cocktail hour, filled with signature drinks like the aforementioned Spritz and Ciao Bella, poured in a rose-gold martini glass, the Prati staff brought appetizers. Crispy mushroom arancini, fontina meatballs and “fritto misto,” with classic fried seafood, slowly but surely disappeared from the table.
But the garlic bread starter may have been the freshest yet. It might sound like a basic order, but when served with in-house ricotta, black pepper and an olive tapenade, it’s something everyone’s taste buds will remember.
“We’re making every bit of ricotta here,” Gray said. “From what you had with your garlic toast to what goes into the ravioli. It’s all made in-house. It really speaks to the dishes, the textures—the silkiness that you just don’t get with store-bought ricotta.”
The signature pastas are also made-from-scratch, in-house. As guests “snapped” and shot their social media stories of the first dish, the sugo with pork, beef, casarecce and parmesan, they were blindsided immediately with the second, ricotta ravioli.
An oxtail ragu, truffle butter and parmesan gnocchi came next, with earthy colors and flavors, and a 13-layer lasagna, somehow both moist and crispy (in the best of ways) wowed with its vibrant and dessert-like presentation.
“It looks like a cake,” a guest said, awing at all its distinctive layers. The cheesy drizzle marbled in the tomato sauce like art.
And just when everyone thought the tasting was at its end, three different Roma-style pizzas came through the door.
“Our son Quinn hates tomatoes,” Gray explained. “He kept asking for a white pizza and for months, I kept telling him ‘people won’t eat white pizza.’ I kept telling him that, but he didn’t know there was one going on the menu with his name on it. He learned the opening night when he got a menu and it’s his favorite ingredients, white pizza with mushrooms and cheese. It also happens to be one of the most popular pizzas so far.”
After warming the hearts of guests, it was time for dessert, tiramisu. Each portion was large enough to share, but light enough to satisfy asweet tooth without guilt.
What was once a well-known and well-loved modern, contemporary restaurant, now is now a more classic, warm and welcoming dining concept.
Like most Italian restaurants, the portions are heavy and the carbs come loaded.
But at Prati, it’s not just about the dishes, which according to the post-tasting applause, are a success.
At Prati, it’s about the open windows and environment. It’s about the time shared with loved ones, chatting over Aperol Spritzes and Ciao Bellas. It’s about the consideration of the ingredients, from in-house ricotta to a signature pizza named after one's son, with all his favorite toppings.
Chef Gray took a challenging situation and molded it into something new and entirely his own.
“It could have been bittersweet,” Gray said about the transition, “but it turned out to just be sweet.”
Photos by Daniela Toporek