Talk to most restaurateurs, and they'll tell you it takes many months, even years, to bring a new dining concept to fruition. You've got to analyze your market, devise a business plan, secure financing, make a budget, create an advertising campaign, find the right location, do the build-out, test the menu, hire the staff — and still, the odds are stacked against you, with restaurant failure rates estimated between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the source.
Or you can do what Nick Pellegrino did — come up with an idea at a New Year's party, give it a trial run later that month, and be up and running the first weekend in February.
That's the abbreviated version of the genesis of Mangia Nashville, a weekly fixed-price, home-style Italian feast served every Saturday night at Cool Cafe in Franklin. Pellegrino — a longtime musician, songwriter and manager who was getting fed up with the music hustle — was ringing in 2011 at some friends' house and pondering his future. As they ate dinner, an idea popped into his head: "Wouldn't it be really cool to have a restaurant where there was no menu, it was family style and you paid one price, and it was like coming to my house for dinner?"
He'd had considerable experience in the food industry: He co-owned a catering company in his hometown of Staten Island, N.Y., 20 years ago, and when he first moved to Nashville, he worked for TomKats, cooking for the music acts that came through Starwood. Since November, he'd been helping prep the daily selections at Cool Cafe, an upscale meat-and-three in a strip mall on Hillsboro Road in Franklin. So a few days after his New Year's eureka moment, Pellegrino brought up the idea to Cool Cafe proprietor (and longtime friend) Tim Ness.
Intrigued, Ness replied, "We're closed on Saturday nights. Why don't we do it here?"
And thus a partnership, and an outright phenomenon, was born. With nothing but word of mouth and a Facebook page, Mangia Nashville has been sold out every week since its Jan. 29 test run, and the buzz is spreading. "People were leaving that night and making reservations already for March," Pellegrino says, betraying more than a hint of surprise.
But it's no surprise for the folks who've already experienced the charm of Mangia Nashville, described on Facebook as "an authentic New York-style Italian family dining experience." Featuring a single 6 p.m. seating, a bountiful family-style menu that changes monthly, and a casual, relaxed atmosphere — much like dinner at a friend's house — Mangia is an event like no other in town. (The closest local approximation might be Sunday brunch at Monell's, though I can't recall the chef there ever wandering the dining room belting out Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" or regaling guests with a spot-on Christopher Walken impersonation. A more accurate benchmark would be the Big Night feast scene.)
Of course, charm alone does not a good meal make. Make no mistake — fun ambience aside, Mangia Nashville provides one of the most satisfying meals in Middle Tennessee. We had two wonderful experiences, one in February and one in March. The first visit was for pleasure and thus note-taking was minimal, so for review purposes we will focus mostly on the March menu.
The meal consists of five courses: antipasti, salads, pastas, entrées and desserts. The pluralization is intentional, as each course featured at least two selections. Table sizes range from four to 10, and depending on your party size, it's quite possible you'll be seated with some folks you've never met before, which in our experience added to the party-like vibe. You want to be sure to arrive on time, as the dishes start coming out shortly after 6.
Dinner began with a plate of fried green olives stuffed with cheese, sort of an Italian amuse-bouche. Three other antipasti soon followed: a plate of grilled red peppers and zucchini with a balsamic reduction, a sublime Tuscan white bean dip with bruschetta, and mozzarella in carrozza (literally, "mozzarella in a carriage"). The gooey hunks of fried, breaded cheese were spectacular, if a little decadent, and are a far cry from the straight-from-the-freezer sports-bar cheese sticks the description might suggest.
After the antipasti plates were cleared, servers delivered two large salad bowls to each table, one containing a classic Caesar with herbed croutons, another featuring arugula with lemon balsamic vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan. Both salads were simple, fresh and lightly dressed, and we'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But that's one of the joys of Mangia — you don't have to pick. Take some of each!
Next up was the pasta course: rigatoni with beef short-rib Bolognese, and spinach-potato gnocchi with pecan-basil-pesto cream sauce. We had already sampled Pellegrino's Bolognese over some shell pasta at the February Mangia dinner, and were thrilled to see it make an encore appearance. Filled with tasty shreds of pulled short rib, herbs and just enough tomato to accent the meat without drowning it, the sauce was rich and flavorful. We knew there was much more food to come, but against our better judgment we indulged in a second helping, figuring that this might be the best dish of the night.
That line of reasoning crumbled like aged Asiago moments later when we tried the gnocchi. Made in house — "I make them from scratch every week," Pellegrino later told us, with an inflection that implied, "What was I thinking?" — the gnocchi were wonderfully light and fluffy, and the subtle cream sauce was a nice counterpoint to the more rugged Bolognese.
As the entrées hit the table, we began to regret that second helping of rigatoni. Two of them were nothing short of outstanding: a generous plate of osso buco served over creamy polenta allowed for everyone to have a veal shank to themselves — a good thing, because this may have been the most popular dish of the evening. The tender meat melted away from the bone like a slow-cooked pot roast, infused with a divine sauce of carrots, onions, celery, white wine, chicken stock, lemon zest, rosemary and thyme. (I'll spare you the "Nick of Thyme" joke — oops, guess I didn't.) The scampi — large, plump shrimp in lemon butter — were equally exquisite, and on par with what one might expect at a fine seafood restaurant.
The only disappointment was the rosemary lemon chicken. The thigh I picked was a tad undercooked, though the pieces my tablemates were eating looked fine. (In fairness, I could have just grabbed another piece, but I was so full, and the other dishes were so enticing, that I saw no point — and I had tried the same dish in February, with better results.)
Dessert featured two selections. The mini cannoli, though quite good, were no match for the zeppole. Delivered to each patron in individual brown paper sacks filled with confectioner's sugar, the insanely addictive fried dough balls were still piping hot. My dinner companion, a Louisiana native, exclaimed, "This is the best beignet I've had in years!" Folks raced to devour them before they cooled off. One diner, finding himself covered in white powder, grinned sheepishly and said, "It's like Saturday night at Charlie Sheen's house."
The price for the whole dinner is $35, though Pellegrino says it will rise to $40 beginning in April — and that's still an exceptional bargain for a feast like this. You can bring your own wine; there's a $5 per bottle cork fee. But don't sweat it if you forget the vino: The Corner Wine & Spirits is just a few doors away in the same strip, and if you tell them Mangia sent you, you can get a discount on selected wines.
For the entire month of December, Mangia will serve a version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner that features ... well, you can figure it out.
And another Mangia newsflash: While repeat customers eagerly await the Frankie Valli serenade and Christopher Walken shtick, Pellegrino informs us that he's added a new (and ambitious) twist to his repertoire: He has The Godfather running without sound on the TV set throughout the dinner, and at any time of your choosing (assuming he's not pulling hot plates out of the oven or waltzing with his wife Jeanine, the evening's hostess), he'll come over and recite, verbatim, the dialogue to the present scene.
As of this writing, the March 26 dinner was sold out, but there were still some spaces on March 19. If demand keeps up, Pellegrino and Ness are considering the possibility of adding a Friday dinner.
Mangia serves dinner at 6 p.m. every Saturday night. Reservations are required; call 538-7456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.