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When In Rome

Visit Italy for a Night at Osteria Stella + Brother Wolf

In 2015, Jessica King spent two weeks in Rome on her own with one primary goal: to play the role of a regular. 

“I wanted to immerse myself in one location and get to know what it felt like to exist in that space. I was not thinking it was because I was going to open an Italian bar. I just really wanted to understand the culture, and I was able to do that in a little subsect of Rome on a hill that overlooks the city,” she says. 

She’d sit night after night at the same cafe, which opened at 6:30 in the morning for juice and espresso, and then transitioned to lunch with sandwiches, and then dinner, and then the late-night menu would start. It was a near-24-hour business that served the whole community.

“I watched young people show up on their scooters and in small cars and fully embrace each other with hugs and kisses. They’d drink cocktails slowly and no one had cell phones out, and they enjoyed each other’s company,” says Jessica. “At some point, they’d all get up and hug and kiss each other and head home. They weren’t slobbering drunk. It was the genuine interest of wanting to be together.”

Jessica pauses, then says, “I think we are so missing out on this experience.” 

The desire to cultivate an enjoyable hospitality experience is not new for Jessica. The Knoxville native, whose family has called 4th and Gill home for more than a century, graduated high school and went to work as a cocktail waitress at the now-shuttered Blue Cats club downtown. The excitement of her new job waned as some patrons pushed boundaries. It wasn’t long before she knew her best role was going to be from behind the bar, and soon, another door opened that would be a game changer.

“I loved having that physical barrier between me and the dudes trying to grab me. That was it for me. I worked at various bars from that point on, from jazz bars and the original Nama to catering and everything,” she says. “Then, in 2009, the owners of the Oliver Hotel were looking for someone to put a speakeasy in the hotel. They got a reference for me and reached out.”

The Peter Kern Library was a smashing success, with its literary-inspired menu tucked inside old encyclopedias amid a cozy academic setting and a drink menu Jessica designed herself.

“It did exceptionally well. That bar made more money than the hotel,” she says. “I used to have teachers come in around 5 p.m. and take up a booth and drink martinis or a bottle of wine and grade papers. Then later on, our rule was the later it gets, the darker it gets, the louder the music gets, and the more people we cram in. There was electric energy.” 

While Jessica was building her career in hospitality, so was her future partner, Aaron Thompson. Sapphire opened on Gay Street in 2005, and Aaron was one of the first bartenders on staff. Whatever job existed at Sapphire, Aaron did it. By 2008, the owner wanted to sell the bar and Aaron, who’d moved up as general manager, wanted to buy it. He and Jessica were in a new relationship at the time, and now they had to negotiate how to function as romantic partners in the workplace. For a while they kept the two worlds separate, but by 2013, Jessica and Aaron realized they were a creative duo with big ideas, a true "divide and conquer" couple. After traveling to Italy together in 2018, an idea for something started to stir. 

“I’d asked Jessica to marry me on the first day of our trip in Ireland,” says Aaron. “We went on to go to Paris, London, Rome … that’s where the idea was hatched. We went again in 2019, to Venice and Florence. Italy has our heart. The way they live, the culture. It feels like home.” 

“It became a no-brainer,” says Jessica. “If we could capture even a small portion of this and bring it home, we’d be doing a service to others. We knew we had to try.”

They had to try something because the success they had at Sapphire had come to an end. Their lease expired, the building changed ownership, and the COVID-19 pandemic was underway. It was late-2020, and the couple was looking at a total loss of income as new parents. Their daughter, Stella, had been born that July. 

“We were promised that Sapphire would come back, and when it didn’t, it was like losing a loved one,” says Aaron. “We feel like that space was our legacy. Sapphire never got the credit for leading cocktail culture here.”

With Sapphire gone, the push for a new concept was crucial. They had the skills and passion to open an aperitivo bar. All they needed was a space. 

“When we were searching for locations, we wanted to put it in Market Square, but Thomas Boyd approached us to say he was closing Rebel Kitchen and Old City Wine Bar and wanted us to visit the space. It was a high compliment. It felt like serendipity,” says Jessica. “The problem is that we wanted to do a cocktail bar, and that space was very clearly a bar and restaurant. Aaron and I weren’t restaurant people, and we didn’t pretend to be restaurant people. So, the challenge was figuring out how to make a restaurant to the level we wanted it to be. We wanted to create a dining experience that was equal to the bar experience.” 

The bar concept for Brother Wolf – named after Romulus and Remus, the mythical twin brothers who were raised by wolves and founded Rome – was built around the idea that patrons could come and sit down for a long while, that visiting with friends is just as important (if not more so) than the things ordered from the menu. The bar’s neighboring restaurant, Osteria Stella, was born out of the same idea. 

So, they pooled resources and got to work. They hired Shawn Moriarty of FleishmanHillard to create a branding strategy. They hired local artists Emily Key and Jessica Ramsey to paint custom pieces – a trio of canvases in the restaurant and a mural in the bar, respectively. They shopped at estate sales and bought artwork home from Italy to hang on the wall that separates the bar from the restaurant. To build an authentic Italian menu, they hired Amalia Brusati di Settala, who, at the time, had just moved to Knoxville from Milan and was looking for a new project. Amalia wound up being their “Italian guru.”

As the concept took shape, they insisted upon incorporating a fundamental Italian custom: No doggie bags.

“That’s something we agreed on right away with Amalia. We don’t do any to-go food. Italians are so proud of what they produce, and it should be eaten when it’s ready,” says Jessica. “Plus, our lasagna takes three days to make. All of our pastas and sauces are made in house. We do our own butchering and make our own sausage. It’s all time intensive. We want the food to be enjoyed the minute it comes off the grill.” 

The couple got it right – and quickly. Doors opened on July 1, 2021, and soon, Brother Wolf and Osteria Stella gained national recognition with mentions in Esquire, La Cucina Italiana, and Town & Country. Reservations aren’t just recommended. They’re nearly essential. 

An evening at 108 W. Jackson Ave., if done properly, begins with an aperitivo – the before-dinner drink designed to whet your appetite – at Brother Wolf. Then, slip between the heavyweight drapes and mosey over to Osteria Stella for a multi-course dinner, complete with an antipasti and dolci. Finally, at the close of the meal, return to Brother Wolf for a digestivo, the after-dinner drink designed to settle your stomach. 

Beyond enjoying the food and drink, Jessica and Aaron hope their guests forget about their cell phones and lose track of time. They want you to spend the evening with your favorite people (parties between four and six get dibs on the cozy, intimate booths at Osteria Stella). Don’t watch the clock. There’s no rush. 

After all, that’s what you’d do when in Rome. 

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Editor’s Note: Aaron and Jessica will be returning to 428 S. Gay St. in 2023 when they open Lilou, an authentic French restaurant where Sapphire used to be.