Let me start by apologizing to the rest of the lunch crowd at the Nashville Farmers' Market trying to elbow into the queue by the glowing pizza oven at Bella Nashville. I was the one in front of you, ordering a half-dozen pizzas and as many hand-crafted sodas and then changing my mind to add another few drinks and another pizza or so. And then, when the pint-sized posse I had in tow ate more hummus and vegetables — disguised cleverly as pizza — than I can usually convince them to eat in a fortnight, that was me again, getting back in line and jamming up the works with another round of orders.
And yet, despite all the mayhem of a busy lunch hour and the gluttonous indecision of kids in their final hours of summer vacation, Emma Berkey and Dave Cuomo kept things ticking along, reaching into the flames of a white clay oven to extract bubbling rounds of charred crust topped with market vegetables, Tennessee ham and Italian tomatoes.
The secret to their efficiency lies, no doubt, in the succinct repertoire and the quick cook time required for the handkerchief-thin crusts. Each 9-inch pie needs only a brief suntan inside the glowing dome, where Swett's once doled out trays of meatloaf, greens and mac-and-cheese.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Cuomo and Berkey have a culinary background that leads through the pizza-beating heart of New York and into some of the most innovative restaurants in Nashville. In a classic front-of-the-house-meets-back-of-the-house love story, Cuomo and Berkey met in Brooklyn and moved to Nashville, where they perform as the accordion-guitar duo Chicken Little. Berkey worked at The Wild Cow vegetarian restaurant, while Cuomo worked at Patterson House with celebrated chef Josh Habiger, now at The Catbird Seat. A year ago, they got married, then married their enterprising talents at Bella Nashville this spring.
As the Farmers' Market attempts to invigorate the cavernous shed into a vibrant year-round destination, Bella Nashville's debut is a boon. Not only does the restaurant animate the room with the à la minute excitement of live flames, it showcases the seasonal harvest of the neighboring farm stands.
On our visit, the daily special was a picante medley of peppers and heirloom tomatoes from the adjacent market stalls, dotted across a crust lathered with eggless aioli made from local garlic. Topped with red onion and shaved goat cheese, it was a colorful and vibrant-tasting salute to simple ingredients and the flavors of summer in Middle Tennessee.
On other days, pizza du jour might include sausages from Porter Road Butcher, cheese from Bloomy Rind, and combinations such as smoked trout with egg, honey habanero chicken with poblano cream, or fried green tomatoes with Hatch chili remoulade.
In addition to the special, we worked our way through four regular pies, including a cheeseless — slightly naked — marinara painted with a ruby-red coat of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and topped with fresh oregano and truffle oil.
Margherita pizza packed a bigger punch of flavor and texture, with creamy coins of mozzarella melted over mild red sauce and topped with tags of torn basil.
The so-called meat pizza added sultry swatches of Benton's country ham, which contributed a welcome depth of smokiness to the Margherita's clean layers of tomato and mozzarella.
The most remarkable pizza on the roster was the hummus pie. To build this Middle Eastern-flavored delight, Cuomo & Co. slather a crust with za'atar (a blend of herbs and sesame seeds), then fire the crust in the oven until it reaches the stretchy consistency of a round of naan. The warm crust is painted with hummus and topped with a medley of toasted pecans and almonds, fresh mint and chili oil.
Count on ordering a pizza per person, but if you're the kind of person who nibbles up to the rim and leaves the rib of unsauced crust on your plate, you might consider ordering at an even greater pie-to-person ratio.
With certified Neapolitan pizza becoming de rigueur among pizza connoisseurs, Berkey says Bella Nashville is not aiming for certification — for a very specific reason. Certification requires the strict use of ingredients — including flour and San Marzano tomatoes — imported from Italy; meanwhile, she and Cuomo are working hard to celebrate local resources. So far, they are still bringing in fine-grained flour from Europe, but they are in search of sources for both local flour and tomatoes that meet their needs.
If Bella Nashville were a stand-alone restaurant, we might offer the criticism that there's not enough variety on the terse menu to satisfy a group of disparate appetites. No salad and no dessert, for example. Low-carb diners are out of luck. But given that the pizzeria lives among the array of vendors at the Farmers' Market, the tight focus is not a shortcoming. Diners can grab a salad or a dessert at another stall — at The Sweet Stash, for example, which celebrated the grand opening of its permanent storefront in the market this month.
Meanwhile, even if pizza isn't your thing, it's worth visiting Bella Nashville for the beverages. In a market hall with enough soda fountains to irrigate a cornfield, Bella Nashville delivers a refreshing assortment of fresh sodas and teas — including a smoky yerba mate. Our favorite drinks were the lemon and orange sodas made with fresh citrus, housemade syrups and bubbly water from an in-house carbonation system. Those were the mom-approved drinks that had our kids clamoring for more and led to my hip-checking you out of the way at a busy lunch hour. Again, my most sincere apologies.
Bella Nashville is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
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