Crackly-crust bar pizzas, small bites and salads, and fresh creative cocktails highlight the offerings at West Hartford’s new pizza bar, the inspiration of owner David Boyajian and chef Adam Greenberg.
By Ronni Newton
After a few diversions from its original flight plan, Sparrow has now landed in the former Grant’s space at 977 Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center, bringing an edgy, industrial vibe, fresh and creative cocktails, and fabulously crusty bar-style pizzas along with small bites and salads to the local dining scene.
“We’re just so happy to finally be open,” said owner David Boyajian, who has been looking forward to this day for – no kidding – three years. He and his partners signed the lease in September 2019, knowing that the prime location smack dab in the center of West Hartford Center, which had been occupied by Grant’s from 2011 until its closing in April 2019, was too good to pass up.
“Grant’s was an institution. I had to take it,” Boyajian said. “I always knew I wanted to come back to West Hartford.”
The wait has seemed endless, but Boyajian loves the concept that has evolved.
“It originally started out as a chef-drive Italian small plates concept,” said Boyajian of the vision for Sparrow.
His past experience in West Hartford was as an executive with Barteca, managing operations for Barcelona in West Hartford and other locations, and then opening bartaco in 2012. He went on to work for Oath Pizza (long before they signed the lease in Blue Back Square), facilitating their expansion with the opening of corporate locations in New York City, Philadelphia, Virginia, and Washington, DC. and was COO of Ohio-based Boca Restaurant Group.
Sparrow – “small bird, big personality” as the restaurant’s tagline states – is the national bird of Italy, and Boyajian said the name was chosen to match that original Italian concept. When COVID hit he said they weren’t sure they would even keep the Farmington Avenue space, but forged ahead to develop a plan for what work in a transformed dining environment.
“With COVID, the supply chain … honestly if it wasn’t for the support of the town we would not have been able to open until next year,” Boyajian said. The new ownership group for the building, LaSalle Road Partners II – which added Alan Lazowski and Marty Kenny to the original partnership of Corridor Ventures, Rockport Investments, and Tecca Ventures – and owners’ representative Michael Moran, were immensely helpful and supportive in getting the doors open, he said.
He loved the name, and the logo designed by Box 8 Creative, so that stuck even as the concept continued to morph.
One of Boyajian’s most visible partners now is renowned chef Adam Greenberg, a West Hartford native and champion of multiple Food Network competitions, including Chopped (four-time winner) and Beat Bobby Flay. The two are longtime friends and associates.
A decade or so ago, Greenberg changed the whole vibe at Barcelona, essentially rescuing the restaurant from failure, Boyajian said.
Greenberg’s culinary career actually started in West Hartford at age 18 when he went to work for Billy Grant at Bricco. He went on to Johnson & Wales, and Barteca, and prior to returning to West Hartford had opened the island-themed Coconut Club in Washington, DC – which fell victim to the pandemic.
Greenberg is the head chef at Sparrow, and has worked closely with Boyajian on developing the pizza menu, taking inspiration from some of their all-time favorite dishes. While he will eventually also launch BDK (Back Door Kitchen), a takeout concept that will operate from the rear of the Sparrow space, right now his focus is Sparrow.
Boyajian and Greenberg both loved a tapas dish at Barcelona that paired roasted cauliflower with béchamel and fennel. “Adam, let’s make a pizza,” said Boyajian, and the Cali-Flowerchild was created. It’s “a veggie pizza a meat lover can appreciate,” the menu rightfully states.
“The Colony” is topped with Calabrian chili oil relish, a spicy nod to Stamford’s famed Colony Grill, and “The Ruby” hearkens the vodka pizza at New York’s Rubirosa. There are “drips and dips” to augment the pizza (the white truffle honey is an excellent choice for the “Shy-Roni”), and a BYOP (build your own pizza) option.
Greenberg won’t reveal the ingredients in the crust, but said the key to the perfect pie is “all about the systems and the consistency.”
They use an XLT oven, the same type of oven that many chain pizza restaurants use, but what’s critical is having the right type of plate to create the optimal air flow for the desired type of pizza, Greenberg said.
“David called the maker of the oven,” Greenberg said. He flew out to Kansas City for the day to work out the process, and to perfect the formula and the pan.
Now that Sparrow’s system is in place, diners can expect a perfect pizza every time. “The only way we would mess up a pizza is if we put the wrong ingredients on it,” Greenberg said. And a replacement pizza would then be ready in just seven minutes, because that’s how long it takes for Sparrow to make a pizza.
They now have Shane Cavanaugh, formerly of Savoy, on board, but with labor hard to find having a system that will ensure consistent product is critical, Greenberg said. That, and top quality ingredients, are paramount.
“You can’t make good food with bad ingredients,” said Greenberg.
The edge of the crust is “crowned” – a nod to the graffiti-style decor (see below).
Both credit Andy Pforzheimer, co-founder and of Barteca Restaurant Group, as an initial mentor. That’s where they learned to whenever possible to “take away friction from the guest experience.”
The bar-style pizza is crispy and chewing at the same time. The pieces are right-sized so you can eat them utensil-free and not end up wearing the toppings – not a good look for date night.
The starters and small bites include truffle fries, meatballs with vodka sauce, and mozzarella sticks on a stick.
The menu is continuing to grow, with what will ultimately be a dozen bruschetta options along with a burrata plate. The menu won’t be huge, and that’s the intention.
“We want to keep it small and rotatable,” said Boyajian. The toppings are seasonal, as are the salads. Over the weekend there was an heirloom tomato salad, but the product wasn’t there this week so it was replaced by a fresh panzanella salad, with cucumber, tomato, peppers, fresh mozzarella, and red wine vinaigrette. There are Caesar and arugula salads on the menu.
Many of the pizzas are vegetarian, and gluten-free dough is also an option.
Sparrow hasn’t even had an official opening, but the news has been spreading by word-of-mouth and there’s already a vibrant bar scene, enjoying the cocktail menu created by Michela Zurstadt. Boyajian first met her when she was a server at bartaco in 2012, and since then she built bar programs at The Essex, The Stand, and several other notable restaurants.
“We gave her free reign – with parameters,” Boyajian said. The intent was to keep the cocktails to four ingredients, so they could be executed efficiently when the bar is busy, and most stick to that formula.
“They’re fresh, juicy, approachable, and fun cocktails,” Zurstadt said. Some pair well with the pizzas, others go better with the salads or bruschetta, and all can stand on their own.
The gin-based “Stallion” is light and fresh, with elderflower and a cucumber garnish. The “Ooo Mama” is a spicy blend of mezcal, ancho verde, watermelon, and lemon, rimmed with tajin. The “Passion of the Spice” also has some heat with habanero accenting the rum, passionfruit, orange, and lemon flavors.
Zurstadt said her personal favorite is “When in Rome,” a classic sherry drink “with little twist.”
She’s also curated the beer and wine menu, and features several very local brews like West Hartford’s New Park Brewing’s Double Cloud DIPA, a few Alvarium (New Britain) selections, and New England Cider (Wallingford) Fresh Blend.
The decor is also a key part of the experience, with a wall-length street art mural created by local artist Peter Le Floch (@peterlefloch) that’s inspired by the graffiti of the 1980s and 1990s. A crown in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and an image of Basquiat himself, claim a prominent role as one enters the restaurant. Keith Haring-style images, along with an image of Haring, continue the theme. Le Floch’s newest painting hangs in the entryway, where a bench will soon be added.
Digital screens currently display art, but some will be tuned to football and other sports for game-time viewing.
Sparrow opens at 5 p.m. right now, but by mid-September (the goal is Sept. 14) will add lunch service with the same menu available all day. Last call will be around 1 a.m., and they are hoping to attract a active late-night following. They have applied for an entertainment license and plan to have DJs, Boyajian said.
“The vibe and the space will be a fun break, but it won’t be a dark, clubby environment,” Zurstadt said.
Before leaving, there’s also dessert. Not only cookie sandwiches filled with gelato (the chewy cookies are baked in house), but also the “About Time,” a take on an espresso martini that’s made with Alvarium’s special cold brew.
“It’s a really large and prominent space in West Hartford Center, and this will be a tremendous addition,” West Hartford Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski said. “It really is a focal point of the Center, and it’s great to see it open.”
In addition to BDK, Sparrow will be opening up a private room in the back of the restaurant once that space is completed.
Sparrow is located at 977 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, CT. For more information visit the website or follow on Facebook or Instagram (@sparrowpizzabar).
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