This past weekend, Emilia, Matt Gallaher’s new restaurant at 16 Market Square, offered an early look at what will no doubt become a favorite restaurant in downtown Knoxville. As the culinary scene continues to rise, the Italian restaurant, occupying the space once held by Latitude 35, will certainly be among the most respected. Regulars and proponents of Knox Mason, Matt’s first downtown restaurant would have expected no less.
The entrance is simple and elegant and the interior follows the same approach. With the former entrance to the basement removed, the room feels more spacious. The concrete floors remain and the bricks have been painted a calm, neutral color while finished, exposed beams cap a casual, elegant, urban look. Tables are spaciously placed and feel comfortably separated from other guests. The bar sits to the rear.
The name of the restaurant derives from a combination of references to both the Emilia region in northern Italy known for exquisite wine and food and to family names. The family theme is continued on the walls with dishes from Matt’s grandmother attractively arranged there. The regional influence is reflected in the culinary offerings, though the cuisine stretches beyond northern Italy.
As we do when we visit a new restaurant, Urban Woman and I tried a range of foods from appetizers (antipasti), through entrees (secondi, primi piatti) and dessert (dolci). And, of course, I had to try the wine.
We started with the “Steamed PEI Mussels” ($13) and they appealed to me the most. I like to really taste my sea food and these had a strong taste without a lot of distraction, though several spices are mentioned on the menu. I hope no one watched me eat them because it wasn’t pretty (a fork didn’t work for me), but they were delicious. The house-made bread was as good as I could ever hope for.
For an entree, we both had our eye on the Pollo a Mattone ($18) “chicken cooked under a brick with a Castelvetrano Olive Pan Sauce,” but we wanted to sample more than one main dish, so I went with my second choice, Lobster Risotto ($22), which included, “fresh fava beans, spring onions, preserved lemon and tarragon.” While both were delicious and I’d recommend either, the chicken got our vote for best of the two. It was amazing. Portions of each were also very large.
The wine and beer lists, to me, are “right sized.” That is to say, I think you’ll find something you like, but the choices don’t run on for pages. Three draft beers are offered along with five bottled beers. Included are traditional and craft beers, including several from local breweries. The fifteen wine choices offer a blend of American and Italian wines. It seemed contraindicated by the nature of the restaurant to drink American, so I selected the Cuvee Bianco ($9) and liked the first glass enough to get a second.
For dessert (all desserts are $7) we selected the Nutella Panna Cotta, a chocolate and hazelnut custard and the Chocolate Zeppole, “Little Ricotta Donuts with Dark Chocolate and Blood Orange Curd.” It was at this point that lines were (figuratively) drawn on the table because we completely disagreed as to which won the day. Both were excellent, but I think it came down to texture for me – I’m more of a crunch kind of guy (how is that for a culinary term?) than a custard kind of guy. I can’t really imagine a much better dessert than the zeppole.
I should also say that the wait staff was excellent. I’ve never attended a soft opening or friends/family night where the service was so smooth. Our waitress (I hate I didn’t retain her name) was present at the table the perfect amount of time, water was re-filled, food was prompt enough and hot, dishes were removed as we finished, but we never felt rushed. I’m not sure how they managed to make it so smooth on the first night.
If there was one minor disappointment all night, it was the coffee ($3) which was pretty much ordinary restaurant coffee. I’m hoping that will be upgraded as they go forward so that it will match the excellence surrounding it. But that’s a small quibble for our great experience. There are restaurants we visit once and pretty much know by the end of the night it isn’t really what we like, and then there is this. We will definitely be back and I’d honestly encourage any of you to try it. We expect it to become one of our favorites.
As you can see from my pricing above, it’s not inexpensive – though we were charged only for drinks on this particular night. Our total would have been $91 before tax and tip, so we would have been around $120 when all was settled. That said, we only eat this way our first time at a restaurant and with only entrees and a glass of wine, we’d have been at a much more modest $49 before tax and tip for a total of around $66, or around half of what we would have spent on this night. In either case, it’s a good value for the food offered, in my opinion. Clearly you are getting what you pay for.
They are open for business starting today serving lunch and dinner. You best make your plans.