Tavo serves up eclectic Latin fare

Francisco Decrescenzo, a partner in Tavo, a new pan-Latin restaurant in the West Village.

Francisco Decrescenzo, a partner in Tavo, a new pan-Latin restaurant in the West Village.

BY MICHELE HERMAN | We West Villagers used to have a rule of thumb: If you see a forlorn, anonymous, unimproved building, assume it’s a Gottlieb property. Bill Gottlieb, the eccentric local landlord, was more of a collector of buildings than a developer of them.

Gottlieb died 17 years ago and his company is now run by more ambitious relatives. These days if you want to spot a Gottlieb property, look for a building you never paid much attention to before undergoing a major spiffing up, with a brand-new high-end tenant setting up shop at street level.

I happened to be biking down Hudson St. a while back and — bingo — construction workers were coming out of the long-shuttered Sung Chu Mei, the popular Chinese restaurant that closed years ago, its peeling wood facade growing ever more pitiful. It had Gottlieb written all over it.

A couple of days later, I arranged to have coffee with Francisco Decrescenzo, the very young and very confident creator and partner — along with his father and the chef — of Tavo, the eclectic pan-Latin restaurant that opened this week. Decrescenzo, who grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, graduated last spring from N.Y.U. Stern School of Business raring to go with a well-formulated business plan.

“Since I was a kid, I wanted to do this,” he said. Though no one in his family is in the restaurant business or even thinks much about cooking. “I’m from an Italian family,” he said. “They cooked really good Italian food but not much else. When we went out, they would get chicken parm and I’d order the weirdest thing on the menu, like octopus.”

To balance his youth and newness to the field, he hired 20-year veteran Julieta Ballesteros as chef. West Villagers will remember her as the original chef at Mexicana Mama, the tiny restaurant a few blocks south on Hudson St. that closed in 2014. Ballesteros is the kind of chef who starts lots of new restaurants, and she has an impressive track record: Tavo will be her 12th restaurant, and all but a couple of them are still going strong, including La Loteria in the Village, Crema in Chelsea and Los Felix on the Lower East Side.

Decrescenzo and Ballesteros met through a mutual friend and bonded over two common traits: Both are from Monterrey and both are adventurous eaters; at Los Felix, the tacos may be filled with venison, rabbit sausage or alligator. In addition to her Mexican cooking chops, Ballesteros studied French cooking, has worked in Asian restaurants and is engaged to a Greek.

Tavo, said Decrescenzo “will be a modern menu with influences from all over. There will be Latin dishes with international flavors and vice versa; Julieta loves mixing different things.”

The peeling facade of Sung Chu Mei is finally gone, and the old brick inside has been painted pristine white. The interior was already a “white box” when Decrescenzo rented it, which means the guts and kitchen of the old Chinese restaurant were long since torn out. For a restaurateur, he said, this is ideal.

“Usually, because of cost, time and convenience, you work with what you’ve got,” he explained. “But Julieta can finally have everything the way she wants it.”

Tavo’s kitchen is right in the center — though not visible — creating two distinct zones.

“The chef and I are big fans of the ambiance of sitting at the bar and talking to the bartender and other people,” Decrescenzo said. “The dining area has a traditional sit-down vibe.”

The designers took their cue from Monterrey, an old industrial and copper-mining city that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. Look for copper inserts and a backbar with an abstract wave shape that evokes a mountain.

As you might expect, Tavo will not be cheap.

“The rents in the area are becoming ridiculous,” said Decrescenzo. “The food will be upscale but the ambiance will be approachable and comfortable.”

To start, Tavo will offer dinner and weekend brunch, with a happy hour that will have deals on both drinks and food. Lunch may come along later.

On a block with no sidewalk cafes, Decrescenzo would love to open an attractive one with plantings, and is looking forward to working with the community board and the Jane St. Block Association. He has already tucked a few planters above the facade.

As for the building itself? It looked remarkably spiffy from the cafe across the street where we sat with our coffee. Decrescenzo said proudly, “I think it’s the nicest building on the block.”

Tavo, by the way, is his grandfather Gustavo’s nickname. Decrescenzo learned recently that it’s also Miami slang for a cool, rich Mexican guy.

Tavo, 615 Hudson St., between Jane and W. 12th Sts. Call 917-675-6454 or visit tavonyc.com .

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