At the soft opening of Lupo, an Italian restaurant in Louisville, KY, there's a somewhat peculiar scene as a mob of wide-eyed patrons waits patiently for the owners to sign their screen-printed posters brandishing the restaurant's logo. Each person's face lights up once they reach the head of the crowd and the excitement is palpable.
If that sounds more like the aftermath of a rock show, there's good reason: It was the aftermath of a rock show. Sarah Balliet and Adam Turla were the headliners. They've been professional musicians for the last 17 years, with 12 releases and thousands of shows under their belts as the core of the band Murder by Death. Now they're restaurateurs, too.
The husband-and-wife team decided to add "restaurant owners" to their resume this year for two reasons: their deep love of Italian cuisine and the ever-shifting economics of the music industry. "We went through about a ten-year stretch where we were gone around 250 days a year. That's what it took for us to be able to pay the bills, but it was just a lot of volume," Turla reasons. "The goal was, 'Why don't we make the restaurant the volume?' That way the band can go back to spending more time writing instead of all our time on the road, and play the real killer stuff."
In the current climate of rockstar chefs outshining actual rockstars, plenty of notable musicians have gotten into the restaurant game. Very few of them, however, are doing it like Murder by Death.
Many dining establishments have teamed with celebrity partners, of course. A public figure lends their name—and money—to bolster an establishment's reputation. While motivations can vary wildly, from purely financial to the desire for a hobby, just about all "celebrity investors" have one thing in common: They don't do much of the actual work. They'll make suggestions for the menu or ambiance, but they aren't the people getting their hands dirty.
Not at Lupo, though. Turla and Balliet are hands-on in a very literal way. "I've never seen owners who care so much or who do so much," one of Lupo's well-traveled bartenders tells me while watching Murder by Death fans chat up her bosses. "Even tonight, Sarah came up to me and asked how I was doing and wanted to know if I needed help or some water or anything. Not everybody does that!"
After saving for a decade, the couple found the perfect place (a Civil War era building constructed in 1860), purchased it, and began extensive renovations to the space. "It's been a crazy year," says Turla. "I've been in this building every day helping with the restoration, whether it was shoveling stone, painting, carpentry, or sharing the role of project manager with one of the contractors."
Balliet has also managed the logistics of getting the business up and running: permitting, billing, payroll, licensure, hiring. She's currently Lupo's acting general manager as well. Sarah estimates that "we've put in probably 10 to 16 hours a day for six days a week." And bear in mind, this was on top of playing more than 50 shows since beginning the project last year. For some bands, playing 50 shows in 12 months is enough work on its own.
Their situation isn't just different from most "celebrity owners," it's different than many owners, period. The economic realities of rising real estate costs and shrinking margins relegate most high-grade restaurant endeavors to those who can afford to hire others to do the work or those who have the connections to bring in an investor. "There's nobody funding this," Turla adds. "There's no secret rich person helping us out. It's just Sarah and me."
In addition to the couple, Balliet's brother supports the operation, and is an accomplished musician in his own right. Max might trail Sarah and Adam in the touring department, but he's been around the block as a guitarist. His bands have opened for acts like Unknown Hinson, Justin Townes Earle, and Joe Henry—and he's backed up rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson the last few years.
Max has operated the local Holy Molé taco truck since 2011, but Neapolitan pizza has been in the back of his mind for a while as well. "Max grew up in pizza restaurants," Sarah remembers. "When he was at [now-defunct Italian restaurant] Primo, he was obsessed with the romance of the flame that never goes out."
The "eternal flame" is part of what makes Neapolitan pizza special. It requires a wood-fired oven, where the coals smolder when not fully lit. The day I spoke with Adam and Sarah, for example, the coals were around 250 degrees even though they were closed. That flame, or at least what houses it, is the first sign that Lupo is serious about its pizza. Their oven, imported from Italy, is the Ferrari of pizza ovens. Somewhat literally. The cherry-red metal casing is machined at the Ferrari factory.
"The oven is almost as important as the water," Max reminds me while recounting its delivery to Lupo, referring to one key ingredient that seems small but is paramount when constructing the perfect crust. "In fact, the guys installing it said, 'Where you gonna get your water? We know you mean business. Are you gonna use distilled water or have some flown in from New York?'"
Many famous pizza places around the US have indeed imported water from New York. Lupo doesn't. "I told them, 'Nah, we're good with tap water,'" Max says. "Louisville has the best water. If it didn't, we'd have to do something else." (For all the affronted New Yorkers out there, he isn't exaggerating. Louisville routinely wins awards for the best tasting tap water in the country.)
Their attention to detail goes beyond the imported oven and homegrown water, with the trio taking great pains to make sure seemingly minute things—like humidity, building temperature, ventilation, and even the amount of power sent to the dough mixer—are perfect. Pizza might be the main thrust of Lupo as Turla and Balliet love it enough to have once penned a goofy song about pizza parties, but the same amount of care is present in less familiar dishes like porchetta and agnolotti. The menu and its quality reflect the real love Adam, Sarah, and Max have for Italian food.
It's not just their personal love for the food or the desire to focus on writing music instead of touring, though. "We really want to share this version of authentic Roman food with other people," Turla says. "That's one reason why we're proud to have a restaurant where anyone can afford to have a meal at some point. We've had people who've been to Italy say, 'This food puts me right back there!' Being able to share that feeling with everyone means the world to us."
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