EVERY Wednesday evening, a group of strangers gathers to eat and drink at Pacci, the Italian restaurant inside the Brice Hotel on Bay Street.
They bump elbows, spoon pasta onto each other’s plates and inevitably, become fast friends over a slow meal.
The community table (also known as “family-style” dining) has its roots in both European and Southern cultures. Pacci general manager Ruth White has fine-tuned the concept for Savannah’s foodies.
Think Mrs. Wilkes’ dining room, only with calamari and red wine instead of fried chicken and sweet tea.
“I grew up going to Wednesday night church dinners,” says White, who originally hails from Myrtle Beach, SC. “I loved the sense of community, of sitting at a long table and enjoying a meal.”
Pacci’s stylish modern décor is far more elegant than any fellowship hall, though the bright dining area accommodates a long table and simple place settings like the church suppers of White’s youth.
But this isn’t your mama's green bean casserole potluck: The ambience is one of edacious conviviality as the chairs fill one by one with expectant palates, eager to view the menu planned by either Pacci executive chef Roberto Leoci or chef de cuisine Dusty Groves.
“It’s whatever inspires the chefs, and it’s not on our regular menu,” assures White.
Leoci himself was present this past Wednesday and signaled the commencement of the meal with a hearty “Welcome to the family!” Large bowls were set in front of diners with the encouragement to eat as much as they liked. Following both Italian and Southern tradition, guests serve themselves and pass down. Servers attend informally but impeccably, clearing plates to make way for the next dish.
The five-course repast began with bruschetta and pate crostinis along with speck-wrapped roasted asparagus for a delectable amuse-bouche. Next came arugula salad with chilled mussels and calamari, lightly tossed with an ambrosial rosemary garlic vinaigrette.
“I purposely underdressed it, does it need more?” fussed a concerned Chef Leoci. The diners professed perfection.
The insalate was followed by a pasta course in the form of the unusual cresto de gallo (“roosters’ crest”), bursting with ripe tomatoes and eggplant harvested from Canyon Ranch Institute’s bountiful vegetable beds at Trustees Garden.
The feast reached its savory pinnacle with bowls of truffle-scented braised beef served atop a roasted cauliflower mash, delicately sprinkled with microgreens.
Wine was poured liberally throughout the evening in both red and white incarnations. Celebrated local sommelier Jason Restivo happened to be at the table with his wife, Jennifer, and extended his compliments for the vintage selections: Restivo pronounced the Fantinel Pinot Grigio “very enjoyable,” and provided a short lesson about the Fueda Maccari Nero d’Avola, a versatile Sicilian varietal that’s a perfect choice for a community supper.
“It’s not particularly sophisticated, which is a good thing, and it goes with lots of different kinds of food,” he explained as glasses were refilled.
This seemingly casual pairing of food and wine served to unify the table: If anyone was still feeling shy after the first glass and course, any reluctance was abandoned by the second.
By the third, everyone was sharing off-color jokes with their neighbors and picking pieces out of the nearest serving bowl like they were in a their mama’s kitchen.
Most guests were local: Some were avowed fans of Leoci’s other eponymous restaurant; others curiosity seekers from Savannah’s hospitality scene. A Brice hotel guest also found his way to the table, delighted not to have to dine alone.
Dr. Anna Barrett and her husband, Pila Sunderland, came to the supper club looking to spice up a mid-week date night.
“It seemed like something different to do,” said Barrett. “And besides, eating and drinking is our favorite hobby.”
Her husband concurs, but don’t dare call him the “F-word.”
“I don’t like the word ‘foodie’ because it’s so pretentious,” mused Sunderland. “But I really appreciate the flavors happening tonight. Some things are only amazing because you don’t get to eat them that often.”
How anyone managed to save room for dessert remains a mystery, but it was devoured nonetheless: Two-inch rectangles of hazelnut cream layered within cake that was more chocolate-y than sugary were perfectly-sized for those with a tempered sweet tooth, but seconds (oof, and maybe thirds) were enjoyed by the more indulgent.
As checks were dropped, diners pronounced the evening a gastronomic and social success and parted with promises to be back. (The table has room for no more than 30, so reservations are essential.)
All agreed that it was also an excellent value: The prix fixe for the Wednesday night supper club menu—including wine— is $35 per person plus tax and tip.
White hopes Pacci’s Wednesday community table becomes a downtown institution for both locals and visitors.
“When you pass food and break bread,” she says, “it just makes everybody feel like family.”