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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘True to place’: Gozo Brick Oven Bistro brings Mediterranean flair to downtown Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., July 2, 2020

During the coronavirus pandemic, Fire Artisan Pizza in downtown Spokane was extinguished, and, as of April 1 – and this is no joke – Gozo Brick Oven Bistro took its place at 816 W. Sprague Ave. Fire’s dark wood interior and seafood fare – including a pizza topped with ahi poke – are gone, and Gozo is on the scene now offering a family-friendly and relaxed atmosphere featuring creative wood-fired pizzas, Old World wine and local and regional craft beer.

Jesse Pyles is the managing partner and majority owner of Gozo alongside his wife, Belle, and their son, Dakota. While the Pyles family took ownership from next-door Nudo Ramen House last November, the rebranding and launch of Gozo, which is named after one of the seven islands that comprise Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, wasn’t until April after reimagining the space and menu.

Gozo – which also means “joy” in Portuguese, a language in which Pyles is fluent along with Spanish – is inspired by wines from the Old World and strives to bring a “hidden corner of the world” feel to downtown Spokane.

Pyles, who hails from Missoula, is retired from a career in information technology and has a doctorate in history from Florida State; Belle is from Budapest, Hungary, and a registered nurse; and Dakota’s interest lies in geology. Gozo is a culmination of their ties and travels to Europe and love of fine wine and food, and it is their first restaurant.

“Our thought with Gozo was to take it away a bit from the American-style pizzeria. My wife is from Europe, and my son Dakota, who also owns part of Gozo, was also born in Europe,” Pyles said. “We’re very much a European-cultured family even though I’m American.

“It made sense to do a European bistro with Mediterranean-style food. I’m seriously into wine, and in Europe you don’t think about not having a meal without wine on the table. We also have 16 taps of local and regional craft brews. It’s our dining idea – gathering people around the table and experience things a little differently.”

At Gozo, Pyles offers wines from Sardinia, Greece and Corsica alongside selections from Washington, California, France and Germany. “I like finding wines from the Basque country of the Pyrenees. Gozo is the way we live traveling to visit my wife’s parents in Europe and the way we have seen and experienced food and dining.

“We intentionally, to honor that style, brought in brie, dates, artichoke hearts, Manchego cheese and gorgonzola and other high-quality, upgraded ingredients. We also don’t offer hard liquor or alcohol or spirits. That was intentional. We know the margins are better, but we wanted this place to be with a family atmosphere and vibe.”

Business during the pandemic has been horrible, Pyles said. “Phase 2 was a dud for us,” he said. “What mattered is the Davenport opening back up, and that’s made an improvement. We have a long way to go. From my point-of-view, we badly need Phase 3.

“We can limp along so long as the Davenport remains open. Since June 5 when it opened, we have seen an improvement, but we have a long way to go.

“We were able to stay open during the entire pandemic aside from closing up March 17 for dine-in, of course, and everything was rebranded by April 1,” manager Sebastian Ayars said. “The biggest issue for us has just been awareness. It’s been hard to spread awareness with COVID-19 being at everyone’s forefront.

“April was a terrible month. We cut down to just two employees – myself and one other guy, and we alternated days. It was a terrible month – there was virtually no business.”

One bright note for Gozo is that customer reaction has been positive.

“Customer reception has been high. Everyone who comes in wants to talk and figure out why the rebrand, everything,” Pyles said. “We are starting to get really, really good reception. We might not use salami because we don’t like the way it tastes and instead use Capicola. Foodies and other people really notice that, and that matters to us.

“With this European and Mediterranean cuisine, we are aiming for the flavor and the quality. It’s true to place, that is Gozo’s concept, foods and wines of place. That is a big deal for us.”

“Customer reception has been very good. We have dealt a lot with past Fire fans,” added Ayars, who is a Spokane transplant from Atlanta after being born in Coeur d’Alene. “They will call looking for Fire Pizza. There were some staples of the Fire brand that we weren’t able to keep. We tried to keep a version of it but nudge it more to the authentic region of where it’s from.

“We’re focused on foods of place in the rebrand. Communicating with the past Fire fans, we’ve had really good reception. A lot of them are interested in the rebrand and still order from us. We haven’t had any complaints whatsoever so far about the changes.”

The most popular pizzas, according to Pyles and Ayars, have been the Veggie Patch for vegetarians; the Raptor, Raptor for fans of meat (“It’s an homage to birds of prey,” Pyles says, laughing); and a more broadly Asian-flavored pizza, that was formerly a Thai pizza, called the Dragon’s Kiss.

“We do plan on expanding the menu when the time is right,” Pyles said, noting that upcoming menu items could include Manchego mac and cheese, a German-style potato bisque and an Italian type of soup. “All the advice we’re getting right now is to keep the menu simple for now. There is a bigger plan, but we won’t ever have a 300-page menu. We plan on bringing in more flavors from around the world.”

Pyles’ favorite menu item? “I am a sucker for a gyro. We can’t claim to be a Mediterranean restaurant and not offer a gyro,” Pyles said. “The recipes are all ours. We build them, we design them, and Dakota has taken an active role in that. We also offer world famous sausages from Uli out of Seattle. He is a German master butcher, so you know it’s good.”

Uli’s Famous Sausages are a menu favorite of Tristan Campbell, another manager at Gozo, noting the complete overhaul of the menu at Gozo on April 1. “We’ve definitely added to the menu. We’re testing a Manchego mac and cheese. I’m a mac and cheese fan, so I’m definitely excited about that.” For pizza, Campbell is all about the Oasis Mirage and Pardon My French, the latter he calls “absolutely fantastic.”

“We want to cater to as many flavor palettes and people as possible,” Ayars said. Looking to the future, Ayars said, “I can’t wait for the business to return and for the good mood and optimism to return. Customers notice that we have a small menu right now, and that’s a symptom of the rebrand and times.

“We’ve had to be creative and proactive, and we’re very excited to get back into the swing of business. We want Gozo to be a place where you can let your personality flow and have a good time. We’re looking forward to Spokane getting back to normal and feeling good about being out again.”

Dining at Gozo Bistro

I have stopped in for lunch at Gozo twice, and it is going to become a regular spot for me and my family and friends. I love figs, dates and brie so much that I have not had the Raptor, Raptor yet, and I am a fan of lotsa meat on pizzas. All three ingredients are appreciably ample in the pizza and salad selections.

I’ve checked off Uli’s Famous Sausage Sampler (the Hungarian and Spanish sausages were flavorful and juicy; the German Thuringer wasn’t available); the salads Aegean Sirens and Balearic Winds, each with the perfect amount of vinaigrette; and the pizzas New Mexico BBQ, the Fun Gi and Oasis Mirage, the latter taking the lead with its creamy brie fig jam, provolone, mozzarella and goat cheese, bac-ham and honey drizzle. Ayars noted that the Oasis Mirage also is popular with customers.

For next time, frankly, all the pizzas on the menu sound delicious, from the Raptor, Raptor and Bringing the Heat to the Dragon’s Kiss and Pardon My French. Enjoying the Old World wines is at the top of the list for the next stop at Gozo; so far, it has been only a Tieton lavender honey cider. And, as Pyles said, there is no price gouging despite its fine wine, fare and location.

Gozo offered a sneak peek of its pimento-stuffed cheese pretzels. “They’ve taken away the need for a cheese dip,” lunch companion Julien A. Luebbers said, reacting positively. Art by Kristopher James adds a colorful and lively touch to Gozo’s trendy and accessible ambiance. Welcome to downtown Spokane, Gozo – your spreading of joy and fine wine and food are most welcome in Spokane’s culinary scene.

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