Lasagne Bolognese $10 Muffaletta $9
Meatball sub $8
Caesar salad $7
A third-generation restaurateur, Chuck Cinelli is working on his third dining enterprise, which happens to be the third incarnation of the Italian Market. After taking over the pizza-purveying import grocery about 18 months ago, Cinelli redesigned the interior and the menu, recasting the establishment as a slightly more refined restaurant—that is to say, a restaurant that is more refined than it used to be and more refined than Cinelli's all-night Elliston Place landmark, Café Coco.
At first blush, diners would be hard-pressed to find a common thread between the Rock Block coffee shop—whose sprawling menu includes Canadian poutine and bagels—and the Charlotte Pike-area market, which deals in local chèvre, artisan chocolates and meats imported from Italy and San Francisco.
"It's a more mature version of a restaurant," Cinelli says of the re-branded and renovated Coco's Italian Market. But both establishments scratch an edible itch for the transplanted Yankee of Italian descent, who longs equally for the all-night hangouts and the authentic Italian groceries that flavored his hometown in upstate New York. In fact, his first venture upon arriving in Nashville in 1990 was to open a candy store in the Farmers' Market that was homage to a sweets shop back home.
"I'm trying to rebuild my childhood," Cinelli jokes, adding that the Italian beef sandwich is prepared the way his parents made it at their deli in Rotterdam, N.Y., roasted in house with herbs and garlic and slathered with a housemade olive tapenade. In the process, Cinelli and chef Trey Burnette—an alumnus of Lime restaurant—are upgrading the Italian Market, bringing polish to the menu and ambiance without sacrificing the low-key charm that has earned a loyal following under two previous operators.
For anyone who has been following the evolution of the 4-year-old eatery, the most significant change is likely the installation of a gas-fired brick pizza oven. Cinelli recently started importing fine-ground "00" flour from Naples—a low-gluten base for pizza dough—which he blends with filtered water to try to recreate the perfect ratio of crispness to chewiness in traditional Neapolitan pies.
In our experience, the perfect ratio remained elusive. The pizzas were beautiful, with puffy circumferences ringing colorful collages of thin, salty pepperoni and salami, creamy mozzarella, basil leaves, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and breaded eggplant. But in the aftermath of our dinner with nine kids and adults, it was easy to see that the crust still had a way to go before reaching the level of a certified Neapolitan specimen: In the center of our table, a pyramid of tough discarded pizza rinds rose like a bonepile of ribs after a pig roast.
(That said, the new layout of banquettes lining the freshly painted back room puts Italian Market high on the list of cheap and cheerful places to take a group of nine kids and adults—especially on Tuesday, when a pie and a pint of beer clocks in at $10.)
Our more successful meals came from the menu's pasta section. Fettuccine with meatballs arrived in a hulking knot of al dente noodles, which had been tossed with marinara sauce, giving them a uniform orange coating of sweet, tangy crushed tomatoes. For $12, seafood primavera made a surprisingly elegant impression, with five large and delicately cooked deveined black tiger shrimp arranged with a handful of mussels atop a nest of noodles in a large white bowl. Shiitake mushrooms, grape tomato halves and shreds of julienned carrot as delicate as saffron threads added subtle hints of color to the white wine-laced sauce and helped enliven the texture of the large serving of pasta. Our generous meal transported easily in a cardboard takeout box and made for great leftovers.
A sign near the ordering counter explains that the market uses local organic produce and eggs when possible. Cinelli works with Sean Siple of Farm to Chef to gather seasonal produce, and indeed there is an impressive array of regional products on the menu and grocery shelves, from goat cheese by Belle Chèvre in Alabama to Benton's bacon and Olive & Sinclair chocolate bars (priced competitively at $5). Locally based Bravo Gelato supplies a broad array of Italian custard-style ice cream, including custom-made spumone and grapefruit-Campari. Lucy's Cheesecakes in Franklin provides several flavors of cupcake-sized cheesecake—including peanut butter and chocolate and Mexican chocolate tinged with hot peppers—which we preferred to the cannoli served with a cardboard-flavored shell. Cinelli's wife, the eponymous Coco, makes a selection of vegan cakes—a wheat-, gluten- and dairy-free line of confections that she plans to expand.
Breads from Bobby John Henry Bakery on Music Row—including Tuscan loaves, focaccia and baguettes—are available on the grocery shelves and make their way across much of the menu. In the case of the four hulking triangles of bruschetta, layered with pesto, Roma tomatoes and shredded Parmesan and drizzled with the balsamic glaze, the thick slices of soft bread overshadowed the toppings. And in the case of the Italian beef sandwich, the gorgeous baguette arrived spongy and tough, causing us to suspect it had been heavily nuked at the last minute to melt the provolone.
Indeed, there is still work to be done at the Italian Market, but things are trending in the right direction—toward local food made deliberately and served in a welcoming environment. We'll enjoy watching the progress. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.
Coco's Italian Market is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday.