Food & Drink

ESO Artisanal Pasta Set to Open in Optimist Hall

Husband-and-wife duo launched business out of pandemic struggles

Kristina Gambarian (left) and AJ Sankofa, founders of ESO Artisanal Pasta, working together on many dessert dishes
Kristina Gambarian (left) and AJ Sankofa, founders of ESO Artisanal Pasta, in the kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Sprouthouse Agency)

Optimist Hall announced its latest tenant on Monday, stating in a press release that ESO Artisanal Pasta will join the Optimist Park food hall’s 26 other tenants later this year. 

ESO Artisanal Pasta will offer guests an Italian menu with a focus on fresh ingredients, offering an assortment of pasta dishes and sides like arancini (fried risotto balls), polpette (Italian meatballs) and Sicilian fried chicken. 

Launched by husband-and-wife team AJ Sankofa, who grew up partly in Charlotte, and Kristina Gambarian, ESO Artisanal Pasta took a few different forms before it landed in Charlotte. Shortly after the pandemic shook the restaurant industry in 2020, both Sankofa and Gambarian were laid off from their jobs as cooks at New York City’s Legacy Records

They pivoted by launching a cake and pie delivery service called Babushka’s Pies, for which Kristina made various baked goods — quickly becoming known for her cheesecakes and tiramisù — while AJ handled deliveries and other logistics from their home in Morristown, New Jersey. 

After seeing quick success in and around the Morristown community, the two began putting together a plan to launch a similar business focused around AJ’s pasta-making talents. While studying and living in Italy, Sankofa had worked at Michelin-starred Ristorante Larossa in Torino, working his way up from line cook to pasta cook. 

After returning to the US, he continued growing his love for fine pasta dishes by accepting a position at Legacy Records, where he met his future wife and business partner. 

AJ Sankofa of ESO Artisanal Pasta working on a pasta dish
AJ Sankofa of ESO Artisanal Pasta working on a pasta dish. (Photo by Sprouthouse Agency)

On July 1, 2020, Sankofa and Gambarian opened ESO Artisanal Pasta inside of The Artist Baker, a boutique bakery and cafe in Morristown from which AJ offered various handmade pastas and sauces that were packaged frozen and available for customers to pick up and prepare at home.

Word spread fast about ESO and the business boomed in popularity around northern New Jersey. The couple was soon able to open a storefront of their own in Morristown, where they reincorporated Babushka’s Pies into the lineup. 

Gambarian, who hails from Ukraine, brings her own Eastern European influences to the pastry and dessert offerings at ESO Artisanal Pasta, mixing with a selection of various imported goods from Italy and other in-house creations. 

As the ESO venture continued to gain popularity, the couple appeared on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, with Sankofa later competing on Chopped, where his Sicilian fried chicken was a hit. The attention from the TV appearance led Sankofa and Gambarian to expand to offer nationwide shipping. They closed their storefront in December 2023 to focus on opening their first restaurant. 

“We are beyond ecstatic for this next chapter of ESO and to return to the city of Charlotte, where I spent some of my childhood,” said Sankofa. “Optimist Hall is an exciting opportunity for us and felt like the perfect place to bring ESO Artisanal Pasta to the next level. We’re looking forward to creating some of the most authentic pasta in the city by using fresh ingredients and familiar flavors with interesting twists.” 

ESO Artisanal Pasta will be located next to Schreiber’s on Rye and Zukku Sushi. It’s the latest tenant announced at the food hall, which opened in 2019 and last month announced a new Spanish tapas concept from the team behind Customshop that is set to open in the summer.


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