“Pop up” restaurants may be the national rage, but some of them have gone beyond being merely the opportunity to make a quick statement about a chef and his or her potential. Some have grown to redefine local restaurant scenes without forging a conventional sense of permanence – they aren’t there for you Tuesday-through-Sunday nights for dinner, come hell or high water, like a traditional restaurant.
Admittedly, Nashville hasn’t quite mastered the pop-up concept yet, though it may be old hat in other cities (for us, several of the supper clubs seem to have hit the mark best). And truthfully, when something organic – like the original pop-ups were intended to be – becomes a trend that drives brick and mortar locations, it’s hard to make it right from there, because instead of aiming to be inventive, it sometimes morphs into something trying too hard to keep up with the tide. But this city’s first real pop up – Mangia Nashville – has become something of a phenomenon, going strong and maintaining its integrity after almost two years – and still just as much fun.
Some might argue its “pop-up” status after so much time, but as an event that only happens Fridays and Saturdays, for a single seating of about 75, I think it counts. If it doesn’t, it’s really just semantics – because Mangia is still breaking all the rules and doing it with style, grace and good food. More importantly, it remains a hell of a lot of fun.
Songwriter Nick Pellegrino’s Mangia Nashville makes for a distinctive experience in which mainstream meat-and-three The Cool Café becomes a white tablecloth and candlelight spot where the nighttime guests and the staff goof off together, get up and sing and dance, and generally all conspire to have the best possible time they can in something like four hours of epic gastronomic indulgence.
Let me tell you, you’ve got to get up and dance when the opportunity presents itself, because if you don’t, you won’t be able to fit in a single bite of cannoli at the end of the meal, and that would be a shame.
Mangia is a complete, self-contained experience, and that’s what makes it work. Pellegrino’s inspiration came from his New York City Italian boyhood. When he moved here for the music business, he couldn’t find the true, classic New York Italian cooking he missed, so he did what you’ve got to do – started cooking himself for friends and family to make up for it. After hearing enough friends tell him to “start a restaurant,” he teamed with Tim and Pat Ness of the Cool Café and built Mangia Nashville like a craftsman from the bones of an idea and a collection of damn good recipes.
It’s a small space, there’s a single seating per night, so only about 75 people can attend. That makes for intimacy – you may know no one else when you arrive, but you’ll know the people at your table, and perhaps the next, by the time you leave. Before long, you’ll be making reservations crazy in advance for the chance to come back again (it fills up fast).
I got my first introduction to the phenom after my parents attended a birthday party for their friend Nancy Barker. The Barkers had bought out the night, inviting a special list of guests to join them. There was so much food, my father grabbed a to-go box and brought home a few tidbits for me to try – taunting me with rosemary chicken. (This is how you capture the food writer’s imagination, and my dad gets this, given his own culinary inclinations.) Of course, it took me months to get hold of Nick to write about him the first time, and another year to get my husband and myself to actually make reservations, even as I struck up a friendship with Nick. The whole waiting thing – that was foolish, I should have fought my way in long ago after forcing my busy husband to pick a date.
Everything is served family style, from broad white platters. You’ll find yourself urging your tablemates to “go on, take that last fried olive with mozzarella.” Wine is sipped from tiny little two ounce glasses, and somehow it tastes just as good as it might from pricey stemware. Larger water glasses are topped with (what else?) fizzy Pellegrino water.
My husband and I are two of the first people through the door– which has been covered in white table cloths, so we quickly forget it’s the Cool Café (by the way, a rather nice meat and three if you’re looking for lunch in Franklin). It’s already fully dark outside at 6; it’s cold, blustery, and we’re carrying bottles of Pinot Noir and Port (there’s a corkage fee, but Mangia now has its own wine list, a good one – something I hadn’t realized – so you’re no longer required to byob).
Nick greets us effusively, and we’re seated at a center table for six with a great view of white-coated sous chefs in the kitchen. The air is crisp with the cool as the door opens to admit a mass of people, but redolent of bread, rosemary, oregano, roasting pork, and bubbling tomatoes. It’s lovely. Once the crowds stop pouring in, it’s warm.
Our server opens the wine, brings us bread. We meet our tablemates, Nick’s neighbors Elise and Phil, and Phil’s parents, in town from Los Angeles, and we’re quickly discussing favorite spots around L.A., the local limoncello I discovered in Pasadena last year, Phil’s parents’ recent trips to France. We discover Phil’s dark secret (as a child he was the voice of Fivel the Mouse in the movie An American Tail) and learn about the couple’s adorable, newly adopted son. We share our interest in living history, stories of our own travels, Elise and Seth talk horseback riding, which both of them do extremely well, while Phil and I, not so much. As promised, we’re suddenly great companions joking and laughing.
The meal begins with those white plates loaded with appetizers making their way to the tables – rich lemon risotto cakes that are, in the words of our server “like the best tater tots you ever ate.” There are tiny parmesan baskets filled with shredded spaghetti squash with sundried tomatoes and black olives, deep fried green olives filled with mozzarella, and a rolatini of fresh mozzarella with speck and fresh basil. By the time we are finished here, many diners are already worried about keeping up. (Indeed, it’s wisest to come hungry if you want to taste everything, and plan on pacing yourself – it’s a bit of an overwhelming banquet.)
The thing about these tiny glasses, you might need to keep track of how many times you refill your wine. Fortunately, you know you’ll be sitting for a bit, and eating plenty of food, so it’s not going to be an issue. If you’re ordering from the wine list, rather than bringing or buying bottle there, it’s easier. And when the martini cart comes around, it’s worth enjoying.
The whole experience is a visual feast, more than one sense is being tempted. Sight, smell, taste. Touch as you rip bread apart to dip in olive oil. The volume in the room is high when folks aren’t eating as well. The restaurant’s television sets play The Godfather on continuous loop, which seems appropriate – it adds to the mood without the distraction of a current sports event or other live TV.
And the food keeps coming: Two salads – one of fresh arugula sprinkled with shredded Parmesan, plus a classic Caesar. You know you shouldn’t fill up on salad, but it’s good, and the house-made vinaigrettes are excellent. (A little confession for those who don’t follow my writing regularly: I get devastating migraines from large quantities of dairy. I generally limit my intake dramatically. Here, I ask for some things, like salad, free of the cheeses, but honestly, I popped ibuprofen and Advil Migraine all night, and let myself taste more than I should.)
From the salad, we move to my favorite dish of the evening, a shell pasta with a beef short rib Bolognese. At that point, I probably could have called it a night. But no – there were butternut squash gnocchi, which made my husband proclaim it was the first time he’d ever liked squash as loudly as he could.
At the end of this course, the singing and dancing began – a good thing, because I was already full. The staff, with Nick at its head, pounding on pots and pans with ladles to keep the beat with the assortment of ’50s and ’60s Amer-Italian hits that pour out of the speakers, dances the mambo with obvious delight, then starts pulling all the guests up on their feet. Yeah, I’ll admit to a few bellydance hip tosses to a little Frankie Valli beat – why not? And who doesn’t enjoy a little Dean Martin? Plus, it makes the Fit Bit happier.
After half an hour or so of this – which flies by – suddenly we have all collapsed again into our chairs and are ready, at least somewhat more, to consume more food in ways that would make any Italian grandmother proud.
And the onslaught of clean, elegant white pottery serving-ware commences again, spilling forth from the kitchen an abundance of rosemary scented chicken, porchetta and boneless pork belly rolled in skin-on pork belly (so full, I really wanted to eat more than a taste of this) and a citrusy shrimp saltimbocca. Dear God, we wondered, how will we ever eat this – and yet we did. Lovely roasted vegetables, drizzled with olive oil, also make their way onto our plates.
Then, just when we can face no more, come gorgeous cannoli with chocolate. It is a fine finish, that little touch of sweet we all craved. It’s the right end to the evening, though in retrospect, I wish I’d ordered some decaf with amaretto. Ah well, next time.
As checks arrive, and we positively promise our table mates we’ll be in touch (I suck, I haven’t been), there are also little parting white bags of sweet potato doughnuts – delicious. And let me tell you, my favorite food is a doughnuts. Nick was the first guy in town to add the little doughnut note as a thank you at the end of the meal, and it’s nice to see some other places picking that up. However, there was no room for more, so we discovered they reheated nicely with morning coffee on Sunday.
If you’re ready to make a reservation, you can find the menu for the current Feast of the Seven Fishes online, and also the menu for New Year. These are special events and the prices are slightly higher than is typical. On an ordinary night, dinner is $45 per person, plus tax and gratuity. For the Feast of the Seven Fishes (ending this weekend, but I hear there are a few spaces left) it’s $75 and New Year’s special event is $100 – you can find the menus on their Facebook page (here). Reservations absolutely must be made in advance, dates fill up quickly – call (615) 538-7456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A note – this is a whole experience and lasts between three and four hours, it’s probably not the ideal choice for very young children, or people who want a quick meal, then plan other things.
Nick Pellegrino’s Favorites:
Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly at the kitchen table with my son
Dessert: Having a love affair right now with Telanti Double Dark Chocolate Gelato
Cooking at home: Pasta with Sunday Tomato Sauce (gravy), Sausage, Meatballs and Beef Braciole. No meal makes me feel more at home.
Culinary magazine: Bon Appétit
Reading: Tina Fey Bossy Pants
TiVO: Walking Dead and Modern Family
Sports team: TN Titans/NY Giants. This will be a problem if they play each other in the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty big “if”
Listening: Eduard Khil – Trololo
Cocktail: Limoncello and Vodka Martini
Soft Drink: Pellegrino water, of course