By Fleming Smith
Students returning to the Mountain in August might be surprised by what they find in downtown Sewanee: IvyWild Restaurant has closed its doors, and Octo π Pizza and Wine Bar has opened in its place.
Keri Downing (C’93), creator and owner of IvyWild and Octo π, announced in April that her former restaurant would close on June 3. After being open for eight years, IvyWild ended its time as a restaurant but will live on through its catering program.
“I’d been feeling restless at IvyWild for a while. I’m so proud of what we did there, but I was struggling to stay interested in fine dining,” Downing said.
After a few short weeks of renovations, Octo π opened on June 29. Construction will continue on the space connected to Octo π Pizza and Wine Bar, previously leased to Crossroads Cafe until the last academic year, which will become Downing’s new residence.
Her first inspiration for doing a pizza and wine bar came in January, when she took her daughter on a trip to Manhattan and discovered a pizza and wine bar near their hotel that they returned to again and again.
“We could sit at the bar and watch these guys craft these gorgeous pizzas and cook them right in front of us. There was something so loving and attentive about the way they pulled the dough, dressed the pizzas, and tended the pies in the oven. This is not a style of food that you can half-ass,” Downing explained.
She added, “Any neglect at any stage in the process and you have a mess. That 900° oven is unforgiving. Plus this place had this awesome wine program with some delicious vintages. Wine on tap! It blew my mind! That was (and is) as exciting to me as the pizza.”
Downing stated that one of her passions as a chef is “elevating everyday ingredients and dishes to higher levels,” and the possibilities of a pizza and wine bar excited her. “Anyone can throw expensive, obscure ingredients on a plate, but it takes skill and effort to turn workaday ingredients into works of art,” she commented.
After her first discovery of the Manhattan pizza and wine bar, Downing came back in March with her dining room manager Christia Cook.
“We joked about turning IvyWild into a wood fired pizza and wine bar. ‘Ha ha! As if!’ But when we got back to Sewanee, I just couldn’t shake the thought,” Downing said.
In April, Downing told Cook she had an ambitious plan: making a pizza and wine bar happen in Sewanee by the middle of June, two months away. Despite the challenge, Downing said, “we’ve both been energized and excited by the change.”
The restaurant’s playful name and underwater theme also inspire Downing.
“I knew I wanted to do something with a play on the symbol for π, and when I started thinking about it, ‘octopi’ came to mind almost immediately,” she explained. “It was perfect. I love underwater themes, I love octopus, and it was an easy launch for a fun and whimsical style. The fact that it ties into my love of HP Lovecraft’s writing was even better.”
Octo π’s menu features salads and several specialty pizzas with names like “Davy Jones’s Locker” and “Squidward.” Restaurant goers will also find several wines on tap as well as beers and craft ciders.
Regarding her choices for the menu, Downing explained, “I wanted to strike a balance between traditional, accessible ingredients and less traditional combinations that would highlight our uniqueness.”
Downing said that the response to Octo π since its opening has been “overwhelming,” and the dining room has been packed every night.
“It’s crazy and wonderful. And the fact that I see the same faces over and over again tells me we’re doing something right,” she said. “There’s always room to improve and learn, but I feel really confident about how we’ve started. We’ll just keep getting better from here.”