Of the restaurants opening this year in Knoxville, Emilia has been one of the most anticipated. Those who have visited Knox Mason know the reason why. Chef Matt Gallaher started his career with Holly Hambright at the long lost Lord Lindsey Catering before approaching John Fleer of Blackberry Farm. At Blackberry, Matt eventually became sous chef making his connections and then began a stint as chef for such music acts as Kings of Leon, Tim McGraw, and Martina McBride. Gallagher then served as chef for Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam before opening his first restaurant, Knox Mason.
Any list of go-to eateries in Knoxville will include Knox Mason whether it’s brunch, romantic dinner date, or Modern Southern. Matt works with local farms to source as many of his ingredients as he can. So when it was announce a few months ago that he would be opening Emilia, foodies all around Knoxville were very excited. We were among them and, as luck would have it, very honored to be invited to their soft opening last week.
Emilia sits in what was Latitude 35 and World Grotto before that. It was an awkward space with a large staircase right in the middle and a dark feel. That’s all gone now and has been replaced with whitewashed brick and contrasting wood. Decor was left to a minimum with plates that look like they were at an Italian grandma’s house and maps of Italy. Understated but very intentional and well-done.
Five fresh pasta will be made daily and those dishes will vary based on seasonality of ingredients and the mood of the chef. Along with this Primi Piatti menu is the ‘regular’ menu. That includes dishes at various price points that are truly rooted in genuine Italian home cooking. Begin with antipasti like PEI Mussels or a Grilled Romaine Salad, then move on to Secondi with the likes of Genovese Fisherman’s Stew with fresh fish, Pollo a ‘Mattone’ using Springer Mountain Farm Chicken, Pork Confit with Anson Mills Farro Risotto, or even a big Mitchell Farm Ribeye. That all sounded great, but it was all about the pasta for our main course.
We had some of the delicious Warm Castelvetrano Olives at Holly Hambright and Anna Bogle’s table along with a very affordable bottle of Rosé. When seated at our table we started with grilled asparagus on Benton’s Prosciutto with poached egg and pecorino fondue. The super-salty Benton’s balanced the creamy egg and cheese perfectly and the asparagus was fresh and not overly fussy. Smoke, salt, egg, and veggie… it had it all!
With our pastas we had the Broccolini which was charred just the right amount then hit with lemon zest to dial back the bitterness of the vegetable. We also sampled the house made focaccia with fresh ricotta and Georgia olive oil. If you haven’t tried Georgia olive oil, you must! The bread was perfectly salty and warm allowing the ricotta and olive oil to just melt right in. So heavenly.
Next we had Ricotta Cavatelli with Ragu alla Bolognese and Bucatini Carbonara. We’re both longtime fans of Carbonara even if it’s mediocre… this wasn’t mediocre! It was outstanding! Sitting on the bed of perfectly cooked bucatini with just enough Benton’s bacon to make it deliciously smoky was a poached egg to be broken by the guest and allowed the mingle with the long, tube shaped pasta and Italian cheeses.
The Bolognese was a ragu of beef from Mitchell Farm, braised Strauss veal, and pork from Heritage Farm served over ricotta dumplings. Both of these dishes were huge portions by the way! It was rich and felt like you were in the Italian countryside at Nonna’s farmhouse! A tad salty, but that didn’t slow us down much as we had some focaccia left to accompany it and wanted to save room for dessert anyway!
For our Dolci we had the Affogato Inverso with Cruze Farm Coffee Ice Cream and a Butterscotch Budino with salted caramel and toasted pine nuts. Mrs. Knoxfoodie loves everything the Cruzes do with coffee and dairy so the Affogato was a no brainer and the Budino came highly recommended by some friends at another table. These guys were smaller one cup dishes that topped off the meal beautifully.
Matt has a huge success on his hands with Emilia. Before going, we racked our brain to think of another restaurant in Knoxville (or even surrounding areas) that tried to be authentic and couldn’t think of a single one. There’s several that try to mimic the flavors of Italy in a very Americanized way, but nothing comes close to Emilia. Opening today, Emilia will be open for dinner with lunch beginning in the future along with plans for Brunch. We cannot wait to go back and we hope we will see you there! Mangia Knoxville!!!
(Pro-tip: they will be taking reservations)