Emilia: Local, light, unpretentious Italian food

Introducing Maggie Tharp

Can you make an unforgettable dish with just a few choice ingredients?

The Bucatini Amatriciana at Knoxville Chef Matt Gallaher’s almost one-year-old Italian restaurant Emilia proves it’s possible. The dish, which Gallaher describes as a “traditional Roman pasta sauce,” combines house-cured Heritage Farm pork jowl with chiles, garlic, onion and San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. The sauce is served with house-made bucatini, a spaghetti-like, hollow pasta.

“The combination of the seasoned pork and a little bit of kick from the chiles and the mellowness from the garlic and the zinginess from the tomatoes just melds so beautifully,” Gallaher gushes. “It is just incredibly delicious, and it’s so simple. It’s one of the things I gravitate to. Five ingredients, but when they come together, it makes something so delicious.”

I had the chance to try the plate on my first visit to Emilia, and it didn’t disappoint. Neither did the service, the atmosphere and the many other dishes I sampled. Though it’s not brand new, Emilia is a must-try restaurant for anyone in Knoxville craving Italian comfort food made with quality local ingredients.

Gallaher’s Italian inspiration

Gallaher opened Emilia in May of 2016 at 16 Market Square. Most Knoxvillians probably know Gallaher for his other restaurant, Knox Mason, located on South Gay Street. In addition to his restaurants, Gallaher has had some prestigious gigs over the years, including working for Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and cooking for touring bands. The name of Emilia is derived from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and the fact that both his grandmother and his sister are named Emily. Fittingly, the restaurant serves authentic Italian food, but it doesn’t stray too far from Gallaher’s roots.

“Italian food and Appalachian food are very similar in the approach that they take to the ingredients and to their cuisine,” Gallaher posits. “It’s not restaurant food; it’s food that people cook in their homes.”

At Emilia, you’ll find dishes that pair local, in-season ingredients with high-quality imported ingredients.

“We wanted to be seasonal. We have the Market Square Farmers’ Market. We have a lot of great producers. It’s so much easier [now] than it has been for chefs to buy locally than it has been in my life in Knoxville,” Gallaher says.

After finding the best ingredients, Gallaher’s menu focuses on preparing those skillfully and making many components of their dishes from scratch.

“We make all of our pasta in house,” Gallaher says. “I think fresh pasta is higher quality. It also gives us a creative outlet. Anybody can open a box of dried noodles and boil it. We’ve all done it. But to actually have your hands in the dough, there’s just a little bit more of a connection to the food you’re making.”

The Emilia experience

The decor of Emilia is cozy yet modern, with whitewashed brick walls, exposed ceiling beams, soft lighting and antique-looking plates decorating the walls. It’s a place in which you can feel instantly at home, and it has the comfortable atmosphere of a restaurant that’s been there much longer than just a year.

The menu features an array of tempting dishes, including antipasti, contorni, secondi, and, of course, pasta. I started my meal (as I plan on doing upon every return visit) with the house-made focaccia, which comes out warm and slightly toasty, served with unforgettable ricotta for spreading.

Moving on to other courses, the Broccolini from the contorni menu with its perfect smoky char is this food writer’s recommendation, although the best single bite of the evening may have been from the kale and squash salad. Sample a forkful of date, squash and mozzarella with a few chewy grains of farro, and you won’t be disappointed.

And then there’s the bucatini. The whimsical, tube-shaped strands of pasta are the perfect vehicle for a just-rich-enough tomato sauce, flecked with small morsels of pork. It’s the kind of dish that you could take a bite of and say: “Someone made this with love.”

Strong beginnings

The first year is tough for many restaurants, but Gallaher says that the experience of running Emilia so far has been amazing and has been made even more exhilarating by their prime location on Market Square. The Big Ears Festival, held March 23-26 of this year, brought even more business to Emilia and gave Gallaher the chance to serve some of the artists featured at the festival.

“It was incredibly busy for both [Emilia and Knox Mason],” Gallaher says, adding that Big Ears creates a unique atmosphere. “There’s a refinement, there’s a maturity, but there’s also a lot of really positive energy.” (see our BIG EARS recap at blank.news)

Overall, the restaurant has been very well received, Gallaher says, which is likely linked to the fact that Emilia not only serves astonishingly good food yet also is affordable.

“We try to keep the prices fair so you can come back two to three times a week,” Gallaher states. “I’ve never had a desire to have an expensive, fancy restaurant because that’s just not the way I like to eat.”

What’s ahead for Emilia

Even before opening Emilia, Gallaher had a sense that Knoxville’s food scene was changing and coming alive. It’s now a place where the best of traditional food and more adventurous offerings can coexist.

“When I moved away in 2007 … our downtown was just kind of turning that corner,” Gallaher recalls. “I look at Market Square and our downtown now and where it was 10 years ago, and it’s really, really exciting.”

Gallaher says he’s optimistic about the future of Emilia because he believes in his team and the food and service they provide.

“We want to continue to be creative and curious about food, but we also want to stay the course … I hope in the future that we continue to do what we’re doing,” Gallaher says. “I will consider what we’ve done here a success if we can keep our good people happy and keep our guests happy.”

SIDEBAR

For those dining at Emilia for the first time, Gallaher suggests the following menu:

  • Castelvetrano olives: “Those come out warm, and they’re so meaty and well-seasoned.”
  • Focaccia: “It’s our bread service, but it’s a little different.”
  • Grilled romaine salad: “Traditional Caesar dressing, homemade breadcrumbs and some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I love a grilled salad, I think they’re underrated.”
  • Pollo ‘a Mattone’: “We portion out half a chicken, marinate it with oregano, garlic and lemon, and we cook it skin-side down with a weight on top of it… we make a pan sauce with the drippings, some olives and chicken stock.” (That’s served with fingerling potatoes tossed in salsa verde.)
  • House-made pasta with Ragu alla Bolognese: “We use John Mitchell’s [Mitchell Farm] beef, Heritage Farm pork, and Strauss veal. We have the three different meats, and we cook those down with carrot, celery and onion, really slowly.” (Add to that tomato paste, milk and white wine and the result is a rich, yet light sauce, according to Gallaher.)
  • Butterscotch budino: “You get this luxurious, creamy butterscotch pudding, the salty caramel, the creamy whipped cream and the crunchy pine nuts, so texturally it’s really fun.”

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