Gather a few Nashville foodies around a table, and, inevitably, the conversation turns to restaurantsmore specifically to Italian restaurants. Somebody always says, “What Nashville needs is a good Italian restaurant,” and everybody else in the group shakes his head in frustration.
More than once lately, when the conversation has taken this turn, someoneor sometimes more than one someonehas mentioned Sole Mio, the Italian restaurant opened two and a half years ago by Carlo and Debra Agnoletti. “I had a really good meal there recently,” somebody said. Another aficionado of Italian eating insisted, “It’s the only place we eat Italian here.”
On the afternoon before my dinner at Sole Mio, I had been reading Bon Appetit’s “Special Collector’s Edition of the Italian Countryside.” My tastebuds had started tingling the minute I saw the cover photograph of lush rolling farmland unfurling behind a table set out with a huge wedge of parmigiano reggiano, a bowl of Kalamata olives, three glistening red tomatoes just plucked from the vine, a bunch of shiny green basil leaves, and a glass of earthy red wine. Sigh.
I worried that I might have been putting Sole Mio at an unfair disadvantage, given the problems a Nashville restaurateur might have finding the right resources. I can happily report that Sole Mio admirably rose to the challange.
Carlo Agnoletti is from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. (I had already learned from Bon Appetit that Emilia-Romagna gives us some pretty fabulous foodstuffs, including prosciutto di Parma, parmigiano reggiano, and aceto balsamico.) This fertile region is also known for its supremacy in pasta-making, especially fresh egg pasta.
Knowing Carlo Agnoletti’s roots, we were delighted to see fresh, homemade egg pasta on the menuegg noodles layered millefoglie for lasagna, and also fresh egg fettuccini. We also discovered homemade crêpes for the manicotti and cannelloni, homemade tortellini and spaghetti, and, best of all, homemade gnocchi. In fact, the penne is the only pasta served at Sole Mio that is not made on premises.
Sole Mio’s current menu bears little resemblance to the one-sheet the restaurant debuted with in early 1995, when most of the offerings were pizzas. Today, selections cover two pages, and diners can choose from a pleasing variety of antipasti, sauced and baked pasta dishes, three versions of veal or chicken, and a fresh catch of the day. Sole Mio’s fine, brick-oven-fired pizzasnine versions, two sizesare still there. That’s good news for fans of this crispy, thin-crusted pizza that most closely resembles the ones I loved in Europeand that has so little in common with the Americanized pile-up of sauce, cheese, and toppings. At lunch, we sampled a small verdure, with thin slices of fresh eggplant and zucchini, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and artichokes. Because somebody had used a light hand in applying the tangy sauce and the mozzarella, we could taste the vegetables. (Imagine that.) Even the Quattro Stagionia “four seasons” pizza that includes almost every imaginable toppingcomes highly recommended.
Sole Mio’s excellent dough pretty much guarantees satisfaction, no matter how it’s used. At dinner we were greeted with a round of pizza bread lightly brushed with the sauce and some fresh herbs. (I don’t know if this treat is offered to everybody; I have to admit that the Agnolettis knew who I was.) But the dough also makes for a two-fisted calzone, the largest I’ve ever seen, generously filled, but not over-stuffed, with mozzarella, pizza sauce, Italian ham, and fresh ricotta.
When it comes to antipasti, you’ll be better off if you go with a large party. That way, you won’t have to decide between the carpaccio and the gamberi, rucola, è parmigiano, both of which are served with fresh arugula, mixed greens, lemon juice, olive oil, and thick curls of that infamous parmigiano reggiano. Order both and share.
Sole Mio’s version of the classic Italian starter combo offered melon that was sweet and firm and prosciutto that was meaty and not too salty. The mozzarella on the Caprese salad really was fresh, and it was draped with nice big basil leaves and layered between juicy slices of red Roma tomatos. Except for the fake crab meat, we also loved everything in the beautifully dressed insalata di marechilled shrimp, itty-bitty scallops, rings of calamari, and crawfish, garnished with plenty of minced fresh parsley.
Of the two salads offered, we all prefered the mixed greens to the Caesar; though the lettuce in each was above par, we liked the light and lovely lemon vinaigrette better than the Caesar dressing.
Sole Mio offers three basic sauces, all homemade: Their white sauce is a basciamelle; their pomodoro is made with plum tomatoes, olive oil, onion, and celery; and their ragu is the classic Bolognese meat sauce with plum tomatoes, veal, beef, sausage, and onions. One or two of these can be used to sauce the baked pastas, the tortellini, the spaghetti, or the fettuccini.
But I would urge you to be more adventurous and direct your eyes to the bottom of the menu, to the penne. There you will find the arrabiata saucetomato-based but spicy-hot with the addition of hot red peperincino. You’ll also find penne with shrimp in a garlic, vodka, and cream sauce. And you’ll find my favorite, the Mamma Rosaa sinfully rich concoction of pesto sauce blended with a bit of ricotta and fresh tomato sauce. This item is Carlo’s concession to requests for pesto, which comes from Liguria, not from his native region.
Paying homage to the movie Big Night, we kept eating, right on through dessert, double espressos, and a sparkling wine. Chocolate lovers at the table purred over the weightless chocolate cake; others dove into the creamy pistachio gelato and the cool, refreshing pear and lemon sorbets.
Courses were perfectly paced, and service was excellent throughout. Pianist Mark Sorrells provided the entertaining dinner music.
Sole Mio’s dining room affords the best of both worldsa spectacular view of downtown Nashville, minus the tourist, parking, and cruising hassles that locals want to avoid. And Sole Mio doesn’t hit you too hard in the walletthe tab for nine, with four bottles of wine and an 18-percent gratuity, was $364.16. Lunch for two was $32.47. Debra Agnoletti, who runs the front roomand who occasionally breaks into song at the pianosays Sole Mio is slowly becoming the restaurant she had envisioned all along. That’s good news in any language.
Sole Mio is located at 94 Peabody St. (256-4013). Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Brunch is served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Reservations accepted, as are all major credit cards