Italian Renaissance 

A new crew reboots The Italian Market

When dining at an Italian restaurant, it’s encouraging to overhear people making favorable comparisons to the Old Country—even if they’re referring to northern New Jersey.
When dining at an Italian restaurant, it’s encouraging to overhear people making favorable comparisons to the Old Country—even if they’re referring to northern New Jersey. That’s the kind of nostalgia you’re likely to encounter in the understated dining room-cum-grocery store of The Italian Market, where Italian accents pepper the conversation and edible staples from Italy line the shelves.

Fuggedabout red-and-white-checked table cloths and chianti-bottle candlesticks: the Italian Market relies on a rich coat of eggplant-purple paint and a utilitarian decor of imported cans of pear tomatoes, bottles of olive oil and bags of pasta to create a cozy atmosphere in the former Bradley Bros. garage on 51st Avenue North. On one wall there’s a map of the boot, marked with the names of students in the Italian class that meets at the market. Out back, there’s a fenced bocce court and fresh basil for the caprese.

Originally opened in 2005, The Italian Market underwent a renaissance of its own early this year, when Ken Petersen and Lee Guidry partnered with founder Ernesto Schiratti to expand the store’s dining offerings. Jim Africano, who originally served as chef, left the business this summer. Petersen, owner of Executive Auto and Fleet Repair, brought the money, and Guidry, a rising star in Florida culinary circles, brought the kitchen skills. They reworked the space, bringing in more refrigeration and adding grocery shelves. They added an antipasto bar, expanded the sandwich menu and began bringing in more fresh and organic produce.

Petersen, a Brooklyn native, whose grandmother hailed from Calabria, Italy, says he was tired of people complaining about Italian food in Nashville not being as good as New York’s. He says he has seen business rise 60 percent in the last six months, and he encourages people to revisit the restaurant to see how it stacks up.

For starters, Guidry, who says that he “interned with Emeril before he was Emeril,” stacks homemade pasta sheets and bechamel sauce into a lasagna that rivals any we have tasted in town. Topped with a Bolognese sauce of ground pork, beef and veal, and freckled with fresh herbs and a visible mirepoix of fresh carrots, onions and celery, each giant slice could serve a small famiglia. Mozzarella oozes across the top, a gooey finish rather than the over-baked scab of burned cheese and tomato paste that covers so many specimens.

We also loved the mussels Fra’ Diavolo, a heaping bowl of bucatini pasta and Prince Edward Island mussels in a chunky tomato sauce heavily infused with the heat of crushed red pepper. Another generous dish, eggplant rollatini, wraps a rich blend of ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan cheeses with basil inside tender blankets of breaded eggplant, with a topping of chunky pomodoro sauce providing a colorful and acidic counterpoint.

Pillowy cavatelli pasta topped with chicken and a cream sauce tinged with sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino cheese was a comforting dish, though a little heavy-handed with the cream. Its decadent richness might be better suited for the cold winter months. Until then, the apricot-white peach ice is a seasonal highlight, while the cannoli, stuffed with ricotta that is laced with Grand Marnier and marsala, is a versatile year-round dessert.

While most of our meals at The Italian Market were satisfying, we encountered a few disappointments along the way. Osso buco, cooked to a sullen gray, arrived in a sauce that recalled canned minestrone. Similarly, the saltimbocca was finished with a brown sauce that overwhelmed the taste of tender chicken and fontina cheese, allowing only the salty punch of the prosciutto to break through. And as much as we enjoyed the cannoli, the chocolate-raspberry ricotta cheesecake underwhelmed with a mealy texture, a disappointing aftertaste of fruit and little discernible chocolate flavor.

A good tip when ordering at The Italian Market: don’t just rely on the printed menu, the specials board and the sandwich board. Ask what’s good and make special requests. Every time we inquired, we discovered something new that wasn’t listed on either the menu or boards.

The Italian Market continually surprised us with various ingredients that seem so simple yet are so few and far between in local Italian dining options. Whether it was the abundant pile of fresh basil leaves on the excellent thin-crust pizza, the artful layering of impossibly thin imported meats on an antipasto platter, or the soft homemade breads from Savarino’s Cucina for the sandwiches and paninis, the commitment to fresh and authentic ingredients is as visible as the Italian tricolor and the maple leaf of Canada, Schiratti’s home country, waving above the building.

With the arrival of Petersen and Guidry, the store is stocking more Italian products, many of which are available on the antipasto bar of beans, stuffed grape leaves, cheese and caramelized garlic cloves. But part of the Italian Market’s charm is a distinctly domestic asset: the ambiance. The abundance of pasta bags, Pellegrino bottles, Italian beer, infused oils, fresh gnocchi and agnolotti, homemade biscotti and amaretti cookies, European cheeses and handwritten signs for homemade Italian ices creates an inviting feeling in the small front room, where two tables hold seating for a combined eight people. A larger back room, more softly appointed with living room-style furniture and long tables, offers seating away from the bustle and flow of the lunch counter.

On one evening, we piled our kids in the back room for an early supper of child-friendly pizza and spaghetti and grown-up saltimbocca and mussels. As soon as we ordered, an extended family of a dozen or so people took the next long table. Pretty soon, our toddlers were making eyes at their kids, we were eavesdropping on their flattering comparisons of Guidry’s food to their family recipes, and no one rolled their eyes as the ankle-biters proceeded to lace spaghetti noodles across the table. The scene inspired hope that our kids might grow up to think of Italian food as something actually resembling food served in Italy.

The Italian Market is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday. Bocce is free—they just ask that you buy something to eat or drink.

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