It’s an interesting spot for a restaurant. It has the Gay Street address, but you have to look closely. Tucked back into a beautiful alleyway that runs along the southern side of the East Tennessee History Center, it’s a quaint, charming spot, but it may require more work to have it be noticed.
Phil Tessier, co-owner and chef for the new restaurant is confident he can pull customers into the newly-opened and appropriately named Cafe Vicolo. Opening quietly a couple of weeks ago, he’s been very pleased with the initial response. The building it shares and the few immediately around it serve as work-space for about 500 potential lunch customers and he plans to reach further than that.
Originally from Vermont, he grew up in the northeast in a family where owning restaurants was a way of life. He washed dishes and worked as a line cook before leaving for a stint in the Marines. Upon his return he continued restaurant work, but traveled to Alaska, New York City and other places, before settling in Utah in 2002 to help a friend open a restaurant. It was while in Utah that he met and married Paula. He became head chef at Picasso’s in Park City, Utah.
They loved the skiing and the western summers, but eventually felt a pull back toward family, with both of them having roots in the east. Looking in the region, Asheville seemed like a logical choice with its developed culinary scene. Upon investigating, they felt there was more opportunity to break into the scene in Knoxville and Chattanooga, feeling both were set to break out as culinary destinations.
Knoxville caught their eye with the full culinary scene, from food to distilleries, and craft breweries to the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Realizing there was an emerging culinary passion here, they settled into Knoxville about a year ago, choosing to live downtown and hoping to find a spot for a downtown venture.
When the former Empire Deli spot came open, they were immediately interested in the location, having just returned from Europe and having found some of their favorite restaurants in small alley-ways off the beaten path. He said he wants it to be a hidden gem and wants to build the reputation on quality food rather than the location.
In Park City he focused on charcuterie and he’s hoping to grow and expand the meats and cheeses at Cafe Vicolo. He offered me a sample of some of the meats and cheeses and they were excellent. His longer-range plans include butchering and curing meats and expanding his offering of cheeses.
Again, he mentioned a European model of eating lightly throughout the day, but said he doesn’t want the offerings to be stuffy, but interesting. He hopes to contribute to Knoxville’s expanding palette. He also mentioned that he roasts meat fresh daily. The excitement in his voice escalated as he spoke lovingly of capicola and bresaola.
On another front, he may be hitting a spot people have expressed as a local culinary desire: breakfast foods served all day. The restaurant is open from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and any time of day egg pies, light egg sandwiches, pastries and other breakfast foods are offered for dine-in or carry-out. His eggs are from J&M Windy Acres Farm and as much as possible, he sources his ingredients locally. He’s been buying his tomatoes at the Market Square Farmer’s Market and he’s sourcing from Two Chicks and a Farm and getting his bread from Old Mill Bread Company.
His partner and wife, Paula, is an environmental scientist and is focused on making the restaurant as environmentally conscious as possible. You’ll not find any Styrofoam, for example. The plates are made of palm leaves and are consequently more attractive and solid than other disposable plates and they are biodegradable.
A major emphasis, predictably given their location and immediate clientele, is lunch. You’ll find a good selection of sandwiches and soups, as well as salads. He says they intend to begin lunch specials like lasagna, shepherd’s pie and more once they have settled into doing their standard items to the level of quality he wants to attain and maintain.
When asked for possible future developments, he runs through a litany of possibilities. They plan to eventually apply for a liquor license so they can stock a few good wines and beers. He has thoughts of having a dessert bar on weekends and maybe late-night as the theatres empty for the evening (this location is directly across from the Tennessee Theatre).
He says he wants to cook for others what he enjoys eating, himself. It’s breakfast, without the traditional southern spin, small plates and cheeses, healthy foods. He says he doesn’t want to lose quality for quantity; he’d rather run out of food. He wants downtown residents and regulars to know his place, love it and return.
I’ve included the menu, though it is evolving. It also doesn’t mention coffee, but the restaurant served Vienna coffee in the coffee drinks and the drip coffee will also shift to Vienna within the next couple of weeks. Urban Woman and I completely loved his egg pie special of the day when we visited and the pastries were excellent. He said he’s planning gluten-free options, but only when he thinks he can make them as delicious as all the other offerings.
He ended our time together talking about how warm and welcoming Knoxville has been to him and to Paula. He mentioned Matt Robbins from Awaken Coffee as having been very helpful and they’ve gotten design help from Robin Easter, so they are already integrating with some of our city’s finest.
Stop in and support a new business in a cozy spot. Also drop in on their Facebook Page and give them a “like,” just to get them up and running.