Grab a pasta-twirling fork and a reservation stat, because Italian food is having its moment in Music City (insert chef's kiss). Decades ago, it was far more difficult for those seeking a sleek Italian meal with fresh pasta not served out of a box. However, today in Nashville the absolute trend for folks in bigger cities is to bring "great Italian food" to carb seekers here. And it seems like Nashville is certainly here for this notable moment in time.
The Old Guard
In decades past, Middle Tennessee diners had more limited options when palates craved a night filled with real-deal Northern Italian risotto, hearty braciole, Naples-inspired pizzas, spaghetti alla carbonara, or gnocchi made fresh in-house. But a few old standards have survived "new Nashville's" Wild West-like dining scene.
Giovanni has been serving up the best lasagna since 2008 in Midtown. Chef Giovanni Pinato uprooted his Manhattan restaurant after 27 years and relocated it to where it still stands today. All of the restaurants around Giovanni have changed, but the Tuscan Villa-esque digs remain the same, cranking out delightful risottos and homemade desserts below the custom handmade orange Murano glass chandelier.
Open since 1990, Valentino's Ristorante relocated from West End to Hayes Street a few years back (to the former home of what was another excellent fine Italian dining spot, Tartufo) after three decades of serving upscale Italian food. They packed up their pasta pots and settled in, continuing to crank out table-side Caesar salads, osso bucco, veal saltimbocca, and wine with occasional live music.
Since 1999, Sylvan Park's Caffe Nonna also has offered a proper old-school Italian dining experience. Founder/Chef Daniel Maggipinto named the restaurant after his grandmother (Nonna) Esther Carapella, who developed her family recipes in the Abruzzi region of Italy during the 1920s. Today the restaurant still offers the same Old World Italian recipes, including an array of "mix and match" pastas, sauces and an excellent lamb shank Toscana.
One key Italian restaurant that's gone from Nashville but certainly not forgotten is Savarino's, which closed in Hillsboro Village in early 2017. Award-winning food journalist Jim Myers describes it fondly for "the role it played as a clubhouse for all the East Coast Italians who longed for the small joints back home."
Highly acclaimed City House has served its Southern spin on rustic Italian food since 2007 and made Nashville native Tandy Wilson the first Music City-based chef to take home a James Beard Award. M Street's Moto also was early on the scene, opening in The Gulch in 2015, where they became quickly well-known for a unique take on lasagna that featured blueberries. And New York-based Trattoria il Mulino was an early NY-based restaurant to set its sights on Nashville in 2015.
Another award-winning chef Tony Galzin and his wife/partner/hospitality veteran Caroline moved to Nashville from Chicago in 2013, and the duo opened up Nicky's Coal Fired at the end of 2016, where they continue to crank out coal-fired pizzas and bagels (it was the first coal-fired oven in Tennessee), foccacia, Mama G's meatballs, and seasonally rotating pasta and desserts.
St. Louis-based Pastaria opened in 2017 with a focus on pizzas, fresh pasta and small plates from acclaimed chef Gerard Craft. “We opened Pastaria with a dedication to La Verità, or 'the truth' of Italian cuisine, celebrating the simplicity and quality of great food. We had no idea that would lead to a sense of community at Pastaria," Gerard says. "The restaurant has become as much about the people as it is about the food. We have our guests to thank for that."
On a most fast-casual/Italian market side, partners from birth (brothers) Ryan and Danny Nicoletto spent years touring the country playing rock-and-roll before pursuing separate dreams. After the death of their father, Tony, the brothers reunited, combining their talents to open the eponymous Nicoletto’s Italian Kitchen, doing things "the right way," with everything made from scratch. The brothers scoured the globe from their Illinois roots to Italy to find vintage machines, refurbish them, then perfect their methods for dried pasta, marinara, focaccia and sausage that would become the cornerstone of their business. It grew quickly from farmer's
markets to now, two locations, in East Nashville (2016) and a brand new spot in Donelson.
Open since 1995, many longtime locals recall date nights at Coco’s Italian Market and Café, while others remember Amerigo from its early days. Amerigo now has a handful of locations, with over three decades cranking out food on West End (it’s actually the longest-standing restaurant on the street).
"I love the variety of Italian cuisine in Nashville from old-school to haute, we have it all. But, Amerigo holds a special place in my heart. My first boyfriend took me there for our first date in the early 90s. My family took me there to celebrate my graduating Belmont. And, now it’s a go-to for late lunch after Daddy’s doctor appointments," recalls Nashville-based journalist Melissa Corbin.
In 2008, Campione’s Taste of Chicago brought fast-casual, Chicago-style Italian food to the "Far South Side," in Gallatin, Tennessee. The family incorporated all the taste of home they missed, such as Italian beef sandwiches, sausage and peppers, real deal Chicago dogs, spaghetti and meatballs, and even pizza puffs.
In 2011, Staten Island native Nick Pellegrino created Mangia Nashville as an immersive, family-style, Italian “pop-up” dining experience. Today, in its brick-and-mortar Melrose spot, the Italian family-style feast continues on Friday and Saturday nights.
The New Guys
In the last four years alone, even more of those moving to Nashville have sought to recreate Italian-accented memories from their own parts of the world. Many new Italian-inspired restauranteurs and big-name chefs from other cities have flocked to Nashville to spread the gospel of pasta and Italian heritage, adding far more depth to the Middle Tennessee Italian dining scene. No, there's not a local Little Italy to speak of, but spots are peppered all across the city today, from Hermitage to Franklin, and of course, the downtown area.
In this most recent stretch of time, Michelin-starred chef Tony Mantuano and his wife came to Nashville with their own "love letter to Italy" in the form of Yolan. Meanwhile, James Beard Award-winning chef Chef Andrew Carmellini brought an outpost of popular Italian Chophouse Carne Mare to the Gulch. Just steps away, Anthony and Theresa Scotto slid into a restaurant space that has been relatively unsettled the last few years, bringing Luogo's duck pappardelle and sunny bright decor to the masses before also setting up shop, most recently, in Germantown's "cursed" space with Pelato. Just opened in August, Pelato is already getting loads of attention from neighborhood visitors for its shareable Italian "tapas" and Sunday suppers.
"After opening Luogo just eight months ago, we are so excited to open our second location in Nashville, bringing our favorite Brooklyn Italian recipes to this community,” says Anthony Scotto of their new restaurant, Pelato.
The Four Seasons Nashville's flagship restaurant Mimo opened in the fall of 2022, boasting another Michelin-starred chef. Aniello Tuco shines a light on Southern Italian cuisine here, doling out clam-crowned risotto and eggplant Parmigiana alongside opulent seafood towers and charred whole bronzino. Iggy’s is another brand-new one in town, a Wedgewood-Houston spot serving inventive, Italian-inspired shareable plates, stellar pastas, and wine from industry veterans the Poli brothers.
Il Forno began as a mobile Neapolitan pizzeria, but the family-friendly food truck garnered so much attention it set up a brick-and-mortar location in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood in late 2021, adding standouts, such as octopus carpaccio, cioppino, and fettuccine verde with lamb ragu to its former pizza-focused roster.
In downtown Nashville, Ophelia’s and Sinatra’s both brightened up the touristy restaurant scene this past summer. Ophelia’s brings truffle-topped pizzas, stacked-high lasagna Bolognese, and antipasti aplenty, while swanky Sinatra’s Bar & Lounge (business casual attire recommended) serves lamb caserecce and veal piccata with a side of live Sinatra-style music and a fun "My Way" martini menu.
Many other Italian-inspired spots also joined the scene, including a Sicilian sfincione spot with a Southern twist, St. Vito Focacceria, a real deal Italian market and deli in Germantown, Little Hats and PennePazze, a farm-to-table Italian spot serving Roman-style pinsa (like an oval-shaped pizza), pasta and salads inside Sylvan Park's L&L Market.
Culaccino and Chrysalis spread the trend to Williamson County, both bringing neighborhood Italian dining to downtown Franklin and Cool Springs in 2021. Also not to be missed in Hermitage, Tutti Da Gio is the Italian dream of chef/owner Giovanna Orsino, with authentic recipes all from Milazzo, Sicily. Orsino's pasta and wood-fired pizzas continue to draw those seeking great Italian food from multiple hours away for the family's authentic Sicilian experience.
"All the food is made like our grandmothers made it in the past, and that's really important to me. I’m a very traditional person and love Sicilian history. The name that I chose (Tutti da Gio) means 'everyone comes to Giovanna' because I believe that food is love, family and friends are love, so the food brings everyone together, with love. We work with passion and dedication, we love what we do, and we love to share it with everyone."