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Emilia | Knoxville, TN

Emilia | Knoxville, TN

There’s No Place Like Home

Chef/Owner Matt Gallaher took a lighter and fresher approach to Italian cuisine when he opened Emilia in May 2016 in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.  “This city is thriving, and I love being part of the community. We’re located in Market Square, which is the anchor for downtown Knoxville.”

Like one of his role models, the late Charlie Trotter, Gallaher studied chemical engineering. After graduation from the University of Tennessee, he felt compelled to cook. “I guess you might say that I began my culinary career at the age of nine, helping my mother in her catering business, Miss Emily’s, which was named for her mother, Emily Jackson. My grandmother is 89 years old. Emilia is the Italian form of Emily, and it’s also half of the name of my favorite food region in Italy – Emilia Romagna.” His restaurant name pays homage to both grandma Emily and Italy. “I would have to credit my mother, Rebecca Jackson Williams, as my greatest culinary inspiration.”

After college, Gallaher apprenticed with a local chef and developed a keen interest in fine dining. He next applied for a job as prep cook at the luxury five-star Blackberry Farm Resort in Walland, Tennessee. Instead of hiring him for that position, he was placed directly on the line, a sort of baptism by fire. His hard work paid off. He was named sous chef after just one year. From 2007 to 2011, his career spanned the globe. He was employed as a private chef for touring bands, including Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Neil Young, the Eagles and the Kings of Leon. Among other places, he travelled to Capetown, South Africa; to Bologna, Italy; and across the Alps to Vienna. In 2011, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam invited him to serve as executive chef at the governor’s residence in Nashville.

Four years ago, Gallaher opened his first restaurant, Knox Mason, with David Rudder, his business partner and friend since the third grade. Knox Mason is in the historic Old City area of Knoxville, and specializes in Southern Appalachian foods in a charming, cozy atmosphere, with just 36 seats and an open kitchen.

“I have always loved the foods of Italy and the products that originated in the Emilia Romanga region, including Parmesan, Pecorino, prosciutto and balsamic. I spent a lot of time learning about the foods and methods of preparation, and last spring, we opened Emilia.” His philosophy here is to use the finest, freshest ingredients – simply prepared. “I shop at the downtown farmers market frequently, and enjoy discussing products with the farmers and producers. They inspire creativity and honesty. We have the capability to print new menus each day, so what I find at the market goes on the menu that night. I am a snob about the finest quality tomatoes and peaches. We make our pasta in-house each day, as well as homemade Ricotta cheese. We did not install a microwave in our kitchen. We can get overnight shipments from the Mediterranean, including fresh octopus, bass and grouper.”

Recent pasta specialties have included Orecchiette with Ragu alla Bolognese, made with “little ears” pasta and a traditional Bolognese sauce of beef, pork and veal, with San Marzano tomatoes and Pecorino Romano cheese; Bucatini Carbonara, which is long tube pasta with bacon, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, finished with a poached egg; and Stracchi alla Genovese, “little rags” pasta with sweet basil pesto, local tomatoes, Castelvetrano olives, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.

Environmental protection is practiced faithfully at Emilia, and nearly everything is recycled or composted. Emilia is open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday. It was recently named “Best New Restaurant” by readers of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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