For chef-owner Kevin LaCivita, everything starts and ends in the kitchen.
- Who: Head chef and owner Kevin LaCivita.
- What: European comfort food served as part of a full experience.
- Where: 3321 W. Cary Street in Carytown.
- When: Opened February 2014.
- Why: To resurrect a Richmond staple.
- Dishes: Quail cooked twice, confit then buttermilk fried, butter-whipped potatoes and pancetta cream ($13); handmade trofie al pesto pasta, seared jumbo scallops and calamari ($22); bluefish two ways, pickled and smoked hash, poached egg, fresh horseradish crème frâiche, pickled beets and onions ($12)
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“The kitchen has always been considered the heart of the house,” said Kevin LaCivita. “So that’s where everything starts. That’s where everything ends.”
The 46-year-old owner and head chef at Pomegranate keeps cropped hair and a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. His dark frame reading glasses make themselves at home just above his eyebrows while the chef paces behind the bar. He prefers to stand when he talks.
“Eating in my family is more of an event,” he said. “It’s old-school where actually the whole family sits down and eats and enjoys and talks. That’s where I think society has gone shitty, is that we don’t do that as much anymore.”
The heart of the Pittsburgh home he and his four brothers shared with their parents was their kitchen. “We used to heat our house with a wood stove, a huge wood stove,” he said. “My mom would make pizzas on that oven, sauces on that oven, and it would heat the house.”
Most of what the Mom LaCivita cooked was Italian. “She’s Irish, and she’s the best Italian cook I know,” LaCivita said. “She learned it from my father’s mother.”
There are many downsides to having five boys. But one of the upsides is readily available labor. “I grew up working in the house,” he said. “My brother and I would chop about nine cords of wood a winter.” Later he helped in the kitchen “by peeling potatoes and carrots and doing all the grunt work.”
He still does grunt work at Pomegranate. An early pillar of the city’s dining revival, LaCivita is again contributing to Richmond’s restaurant scene.
“When I was in 8th grade this is what I wanted to do,” LaCivita said. “My goal was to open my own place when I was 30.”
He only missed it by a year.
Walking into it
The LaCivitas arrived in Richmond in 1978 when Kevin was 15. Kevin’s first job was at a Golden Corral. “That’s where I learned to butcher my first meats,” he said. “We had our own butcher shop, and inside that butcher shop everything was cut daily.”
Kevin’s mom egged on her chef-aspiring son when a position at a Southside country club opened. “My mom kind of forced me into that because she knew I wanted to do it, but knew I didn’t have the nerve [to apply],” LaCivita said. “Maybe I didn’t feel like I was ready. She thought I was.” He was 16.
LaCivita’s takeaways from his time at the country club: “getting my feet wet, being in a position to organize, [and] learn a work ethic,” he said. “I was just a sponge. I was just trying to hold onto anything I could.”
Over the next decade, LaCivita bounced around kitchens across the country to keep sponging. “That was the whole objective in working,” he said. “I never wanted to be at one place too long, or too short.”1
In 1997, LaCivita was the executive chef at a Memphis, Tennessee country club when he realized he’d sponged enough. It was time for his own place. He picked Richmond to be close to his parents. “I didn’t want my kids to know their grandparents through a phone,” he said.
During one visit to look at potential locations, he and a broker looked at None Such Place, which would later become Julep’s. At the time, the building needed too much work and money. The owners were also adamant that LaCivita couldn’t rename the place.
While at lunch here in Richmond, he and his broker visited Café Indochine, a French-Vietnamese place in Shockoe with a gorgeous tile floor and brick walls. “Everything about it was European,” LaCivita said. “This is exactly what I’m looking for,” he thought. He asked the owners if they were interested in selling. They were. After months of negotiations, LaCivita had the location for his restaurant. “I kind of walked into it,” he said.
Pomegranate opened in 2000.
Don’t be something you’re not
What LaCivita loved about the European aesthetic was that it’d pair perfectly with his menu. “I grew up eating European food,” he said. “It’s comfort food…it brings back memories of childhood, brings up all that stuff. And it’s my passion. It’s what I know.”
LaCivita values the idea that chefs should cook what they know. “When people throw around ‘authentic’ they’re not authentic. You’re inspired. If you’re authentic Italian, you’re not in Richmond, VA. You’re in Italy,” he said. “Don’t be something you’re not.”
Pomegranate is European comfort food inspired by the Italian and French dishes LaCivita’s mom cooked on top of that oven in their Pittsburgh home, like the Gnocchi Bolognese.2 “That’s my grandmother’s recipe.”
LaCivita owned Pomegranate from 2000 – 2008. “We went through 9-11…then we went through a couple of wars, the economy crashing…” and Pomegranate endured. Then state leaders downsized the state government. “Shockoe Slip hurt dramatically.”
“You took away all these employees,” he said. “I could see the state building where my father worked–he was fire safety–from the front of my restaurant. That hurt tremendously” when the Shockoe Slip lunch crowed3 vanished.
Mixed with the dwindling business, LaCivita wanted more time to spend with his four children. “So I took a year off,” he said. Pomegranate closed in mid-2008.
He’d have cooking jobs here and there to keep him sharp. Ultimately, he would help open The Blue Goat in 2011.
The goal of the restaurant: to do something in Richmond “no one else had the nerve to do: nose to tail,” LaCivita said. It’s a philosophy that values both creativity and economy. “Where you buy a whole animal and use everything from the nose to the tail, literally.”
As head chef, LaCivita already had the experience to dish out a nose-to-tail menu. “I was doing veal cheeks back in 2003 [at Pomegranate],” he said.
But Blue Goat management began to doubt their concept. Instead of being the odd-man-out in the local dining scene, they sought to acclimate themselves to the preferences of nearby residents, preferences not of the nose-to-tail variety. LaCivita left in June 2013, and the Blue Goat debuted a new chef, menu, and concept this past February.
The Blue Goat giving up on its head-to-tail mission wasn’t the only thing that made LaCivita leave. “I wanted my own place,” he said. He wanted Pomegranate back.
He resurrected Pomegranate in Carytown last February. While sharing a name with its predecessor, the new Pomegranate is different than the old one. “It’s a lot more casual,” LaCivita said. “There [in Shockoe] I was tablecloth. This is a little more farm-to-table.” He said the first Pomegranate did “some” local sourcing. “Now I do 90 percent.”
That’s one of the changes LaCivita’s seen in the six years since the first Pomegranate closed. “The ability to do more locally sourced items is 90 percent better because [vendors are] everywhere,” he said.
Differences in the dining scene go beyond the table. “The fraternity of chefs is a lot closer now,” LaCivita said. That wasn’t how it was. “No one worked together. They fought each other.” Now pop-up restaurants and guest chefs are commonplace. “That has changed,” LaCivita said. “10 years ago, that was unheard of.”
LaCivita prefers restaurants wherein the chef rules the roost. “When I go out to eat, I go to places that are chef-owned,” LaCivita said. “No one cares more about the restaurant than the chef. No one.”
“Whenever a chef–a good chef–puts food together and sends it out to the dining room, he doesn’t see it as: ‘OK, it’s left the kitchen. My job is done,” LaCivita said. A good chef wants to know servers are serving the dishes properly and are able to dictate information and answer questions. “These are things all good chefs think about.” It’s what LaCivita thinks about.
When asked how he’d pitch Pomegranate to diners, who have a seemingly endless portion of local restaurants already on their plate, LaCivita bows his head, his glasses still resting above his eyebrows as he considers. “I’m not the salesman type,” he said with calmness and confidence. “I let my product speak for itself.”
That product begins with fresh ingredients. “My dry storage is as big as your refrigerator at home. Everything else is brought in daily,” he said. “There’s nothing I buy pre-packaged. We make our soups, desserts…everything is done in-house.”
But like all good chefs, LaCivita’s concerns don’t end on the plate. “I don’t cater to the masses. I cater to a percentage of people who enjoy the full experience…,” he said. That experience involves food, service, decor, and a fair price–things all good chefs think about. But LaCivita has delivered them night after night, year after year.
Because cooking is more to LaCivita than mere plates of food. The kitchen is the heart of his house. That’s where everything starts. That’s where everything ends.
Pomegranate is located at 3321 W. Cary Street.
photo courtesy of Pomagranate
- If you’re a line cook “you’ve got to get a year,” he said. “If you’re a sous chef you’ve got to do two years. I don’t care if you hate it.” Chef? “Minimum of three, if you can hold out.” ↩
- Not currently on Pomegranate’s seasonal menu. ↩
- Interestingly, most of Pomegranate’s dinner crowd comprised people outside Richmond. American Express provided LaCivita an annual report of card holders’ locations, and the top five were New York, Atlanta, DC, Hampton Roads, and then Richmond. ↩