At Pomodoro East, Willy Thomas and Joe Shaw team up for Italian-inspired farm-to-table fare 

Tomato Arts

Tomato Arts
click to enlarge Gallina paillard

Michael W. Bunch

Gallina paillard

There are lots of successful combinations at Pomodoro East, from the pairing of roasted artichokes and goat cheese on a wood-fired pizza to the marriage of mascarpone and coffee in a ramekin of tiramisu. But no pairing was more remarkable than the duo of handmade pappardelle and a handful of crayons, which landed on our table to the delight of both parents and kids.

That incongruous coupling summed up our experience at Pomodoro, which is simultaneously family-friendly and food-forward, white-tablecloth and corrugated-metal, East Nashville and Bell'Italia.

We would expect nothing less from the wholly auspicious alliance of owners Willy and Yvette Thomas and executive chef Joe Shaw, who merge considerable résumés at the intersection of Porter Road and Eastland Avenue, in the former location of the bygone Cooper's on Porter. Willy Thomas is a veteran of Capitol Grille and owner of Eastland Cafe and Park Cafe. Before his local stints at Watermark, Miro District and The Standard at Smith House, Shaw worked in Frank Stitt's Birmingham-based restaurant empire, including the Italian-influenced Bottega. Pomodoro echoes the rustic flavors and ingredients of that landmark eatery in offerings such as carpaccio, asparagus with egg, ravioli with crawfish, and pizzas dotted with lamb sausage and smoked salmon.

It's a formula that fills a void in East Nashville, where Italian food has been interpreted predominantly in the limited language of pizza and pasta. Of course, those hallmarks of Italian cuisine appear at the house of Thomas and Shaw, but in their open kitchen and farmhouse-style dining room, the pomodoro (that's Italian for tomato) is arguably more a tribute to East Nashville's quirky summer arts festival than to red sauce. To put it another way, you can wear a white shirt to Pomodoro and not worry about carrying a stain-removing pen.

Consider this: When we ordered a simple cheese pizza, our children almost didn't recognize the disk of delicate, flame-charred crust washed with a thin layer of crushed tomatoes. "This doesn't taste like pizza," one child remarked curiously. No, children, that's because this pie is made with fresh tomatoes and real cheese — specifically, a nutty, tangy layering of mozzarella, fontina, provolone and parmesan that should remind us never again to unzip a bag of supermarket shreds as long we live.

Gessoed with a thick base of Bonnie Blue goat cheese from Waynesboro, Tenn., and paved with smoky, hand-trimmed roasted artichoke hearts, the $10 artichoke-garlic-goat-cheese pie, glowing with warm olive oil, emerged as the low-key — not to mention low-dollar — standout of our experiences. No doubt, the array of pizzas topped with roasted chicken, salmon and lamb sausage will emerge as a favorite neighborhood dinner.

But Pomodoro is far more than a pizza joint. In fact, pizzas account for only a small slice of the seasonal and locally focused menu, but the glowing arched brick oven, imported from Italy, gets put to use with other dishes such as gnocchi alla Romana; swordfish with polenta and olives; and clams al forno — a bowl of sweet and briny shellfish bathing in white wine tinged with chili and garlic.

Spedini, which takes its name from the Italian word for "skewers" and often refers to grilled meat on a stick, was not what we expected — nary a shish nor toothpick nor hunk of flesh in site. Nonetheless, the baked triangles of housemade bread, blanketed with molten mozzarella and finished with lemon butter, diced olives and sundried tomatoes, were a sultry surprise — a cheesy, savory spin on baked French toast.

A salad of octopus, squid and shrimp was a rich medley of textures: The trio of warm seafood was tossed with arugula and fingerling potatoes and accented with bright hints of citrus, basil and mint. In another excellent light-handed treatment of squid, calamari is dredged in pulverized Arborio rice to make a coarse blond coating for deep-frying. The sandy rings are dappled with tomato-caper sauce and lemon aioli.

Gallina paillard was the unexpected standout of our meals. Thinly pounded and marinated chicken breast emerged from the griddle lacquered with a subtle sweet tang of balsamic reduction. Draped over a shallow bed of shaved provolone and topped with zesty arugula, the dish deftly merged a range of textures and temperatures to showcase the simple elegance of fresh ingredients.

Among so many excellent executions, there was one significant disappointment. Brasato al Barolo — roulade of braised beef stuffed with mushrooms and swaddled in pancetta — sat heavily on a thick berg of mashed potatoes, with no sauce or gravy to marry the earth-toned elements. A follow-up conversation with Chef Shaw led us to assume the kitchen forgot to finish the dish with a critical ladle of onion-and-garlic-infused red wine reduction, which could have made all the difference, in appearance, texture and taste.

Now back to that pappardelle. The side of crayons not withstanding, the dish was virtually monochrome, and consequently could be overlooked. But what the beige dish lacked in color it made up for in perfectly imperfect ribbons of pasta wrapped with layered flavors of earthy rabbit and mushrooms and fruity, tannic marsala.

Chef Shaw says to expect at least some variety of homemade pasta on the seasonally shifting menu, whether it's ravioli, pappardelle or tagliatelle. Of course, it will be hard to beat the capellini al pomodoro, which is available as a generous half-sized portion for $8. Made with tomatoes that are blistered and squeezed from the skins into a hot bath of garlic-infused olive oil and tossed with basil and parmesan, this preparation of the classic dish does a tomato — and the restaurant that bears its name — proud.

Pomodoro East serves dinner nightly. Full bar is available.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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