Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.
This time, we’re taking a look at SAVI Cucina + Wine Bar, the restaurant helmed by husband-and-wife team Ty and Karen Raju that pays tribute to the breadth of Italian cooking, as well as approachable, delicious wines from around the world. It opened in November 2019 in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
1. The restaurant represents a dream fulfilled.
Ty and Karen Raju always wanted to open a restaurant — they just didn’t know exactly when, or how they’d do it. Over the years, both built successful careers in corporate America. But both had grown up in and around restaurants, and after a 2016 trip to California, they decided to go for it.
“We were actually sitting on the side of a mountain in Paso Robles, in this beautiful vineyard, overlooking the landscape and saying to each other, ‘You know, do we really just want to retire in corporate America one day?’” remembers Ty. “Do we want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve worked 30 years but never built anything or never got to enjoy what we really love, which is restaurants and hospitality and food and wine?’”
It was then that the idea for SAVI Cucina was born. “We decided we wanted to do our passion project, an upscale Italian restaurant with a pretty deep wine program where we make everything else, and the wine is fantastic,” says Ty.
From 2016 to 2019, Ty and Karen “incubated” the restaurant idea and in 2019, they finally decided to open it, taking over a spot that used to be home to Napa restaurant. Karen quit her job to work at the restaurant full time. Ty, a certified sommelier, still works in corporate America, but you can often find him at the restaurant, especially on the weekends.
2. Family is at the core.
The restaurant’s name is a reference to Karen’s grandmother from Bari, Italy, affectionately known as Mama Savi.
The restaurant itself, says Karen, was designed to feel sophisticated, with its navy blue and gold tones, but still approachable, and, like a home, it’s got very distinctive spaces: a main dining room, a bar, and an outdoor area.
“We wanted a good balance so that you could come in to SAVI wearing jeans and a T-shirt or yoga pants and a baseball cap, or you can come in for a date night and get dressed up and feel just as comfortable,” she says. “We want people to feel like they’re going out for an experience. I want people to enter as friends and leave as family.” (In fact, the sign above the bar reads just that, in Italian.)
During the pandemic, when SAVI was limited to only offering takeout, Karen would often leave handwritten thank-you notes for her guests inside the takeout packages. “We wanted people to enjoy SAVI on their terms, and we wanted to extend that hospitality to our guests, even when we couldn’t have conversations or spend much time with them inside the restaurant,” Ty says. “It was that touch that really made us realize, you know, how you can still extend hospitality and warm hospitality, to be a little creative, and, you know, take a little extra effort, but it makes all the difference in the world for our customers.”
3. Their wine club has a wait list.
“Wine” is in the restaurant name for a reason. SAVI hosts weekly Wine Down Wednesdays where select bottles are sold for $25 a bottle for dine-in guests, as well as monthly wine- and spirit-focused dinners. It also has a Savi Society Wine Club where members get two bottles every month. It’s got close to 350 members at the moment, and there’s a waiting list to become a member.
“You come in, you taste five different wines, and then you get to go home with whatever two bottles fit your palate,” Ty explains. “When you think about wine clubs, everyone’s kind of got one, but often you’re at the mercy of whatever they want to give you, so we wanted to do one that was frictionless.”
For Ty, wine has been something he’s loved deeply, ever since he worked at the Turnberry Isle resort in Aventura, Fla. Starting out as a barback, he worked his way up to become a bartender, server, and eventually a bar manager, and it was his relationship with the lead sommelier who introduced him to the world of wines.
“I was 21 years old and had just gotten out of the army and was working my way through college, and he just taught me so much and I just got bit by the bug,” Ty recalls.
Ty remembers once when musician Kenny Rogers showed up at the hotel after a concert and ordered a Premier Cru. “I never realized that Chardonnay could taste like that, and I will always remember tasting that wine to this day.”
Ty says he loves learning about wines — he thinks of them like puzzles. “I’m trying to understand complex situations, and wine is, you know, probably one of the most complex food products out there.” He received his certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2019.
At Savi, the wine list includes more than 300 different bottles, with an emphasis on wines from Italy as well as from California, Oregon, and Spain. After just a year in operation, the restaurant was recognized by Wine Spectator for its program.
Most of all, however, Ty wants the wine program at SAVI to be approachable. “We try to focus on high-quality fine wines from great producers. And try to find really great value for our clients and our guests.” He particularly loves introducing guests to Super Tuscans and Pinot Noir from Oregon.
“Ty likes to come in on the weekends, and he gets to talk wine with our guests and recommend amazing bottles and kind of geek out about wine, which is great,” adds Karen. “And customers love having him here, too.”
4. And don’t miss the eggplant.
The kitchen is led by executive chef Jeff Allen, who previously worked at Wood & Grain. Most of the menu concentrates on dishes that come from Southern Italy, but there are a few Northern-style dishes as well, and the chefs also try to incorporate as much fresh seafood and produce from the local Charleston area as possible.
But, if there’s one dish on the menu that you shouldn’t sleep on, it’s the eggplant parmigiana. “We peel all of our eggplants and it’s sliced really, really thinly, and then we layer them, almost like a lasagna so it’s five to seven layers deep,” explains Karen. “It’s not too saucy, so it still maintains its crispness. I can’t tell you how many people have pulled us aside in the dining room and they say, ‘I don’t even like eggplant parmesan, but this is my go-to dish now.’”
Ty’s favorite dish on the menu, in addition to the eggplant, is the linguine with clams, done “Savi style” by adding shrimp and calamari.
He and Karen also sing the praises of pastry chef Alex Kowalski, whose olive oil cake, the Mama Savi Cake, is a favorite among guests, as is her housemade gelato.
SAVI Cucina + Wine Bar is open Tuesdays through Sundays.