Network Under 40
Join Network Under 40 on June 21 at AJ’s Good Time Bar, country music star Alan Jackson’s restaurant and bar, located in the heart of downtown Nashville. With
“Get ready for the show,” Mangia Nashville’s general manager Rachel Lunsford whispered. It was a recent Saturday night inside the new brick-and-mortar location of the five-year-running Italian dinner pop-up. The house was packed. We were a few courses—and drinks—into a three-hour feast, and the volume in the room had reached a maximum height.
A minute later, the music went up a few notches, and the wait staff converged in the middle of the dining room, led by Lunsford, who clapped along loudly to the sounds of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” Soon, more than 100 diners and the staff were singing, clapping, and swaying to the music—it felt like one of those joyous and rowdy weddings that you attend and talk about for years afterward.
Porchetta panino, $12
Verdure Focaccia, $10
Longtime fans of Mangia Nashville will recognize this scene as the creation of chef Nick Pellegrino, who, in 2011, started his weekend-only pop-up dinners at a small meat-and-three in Franklin. A native of Staten Island, New York, as well as a lifelong musician and songwriter, Pellegrino started cooking early in his career, both because he loved it and because it was always easy for him to pick up a kitchen or catering shift between touring gigs. Mangia was an experiment, of sorts, that started as a casual gathering where he would cook a huge meal for friends and family—and then come out of the kitchen to get the crowd singing.
“We always did these big dinners and bocce ball tournaments at my house,” Pellegrino says. “There was always music involved, and we’d sing, and it was just what we’d do. So, I said, ‘We’re going to try this thing.’ We invited about 20 people, just a small group,” he says, including music industry friends, like Sheryl Crow.
The multi-course meal was served family style on huge platters and included fried olives stuffed with mozzarella, lemon-rosemary chicken, and beef-rib Bolognese—all dishes he still serves today. “Everybody was like, ‘You’ve got something here,’” Pellegrino reports—and, clearly, they were right: Since then, every Mangia dinner has been a sellout. And, what’s more, the hype has been spread almost entirely word-of-mouth.
The 50-seat meals grew to 100 as his wait list swelled. Finally, late last year, Pellegrino found a permanent location, applied for a small business loan, and spent several months this winter building out the Craighead Street space almost entirely by himself, from the tiles to the tables.
During the week, Mangia is what Pellegrino calls a focacceria, with a menu based completely on the sponge-y Italian bread. You won’t find pastas, but, instead, hearty sandwiches, like the slow-roasted porchetta, topped with cooked-to-tender broccoli rabe, or focaccia pizzas, which can be custom-made or ordered as a special. Try the verdura, capped with a pile of roasted vegetables, basil pesto, and fresh mozzarella.
There are also salads and spuntini, or small bites, like the addictive arancini (fried risotto balls) and those signature fried green olives. He’s also offering black carbon focaccia, which he makes by adding charcoal, turning the bread appealingly dark, like pumpernickel. He stumbled upon the charcoal treatment in Italy during a research trip and says he tried it both for the health properties (some claim that charcoal acts as detoxifying ingredient), and, he adds, “It just looks awesome.”
More impressive than the overall list of dishes, though, is the fact that Pellegrino will prepare everything on the menu as a gluten-free version—including the bread.
His wife, Jeanine, has Celiac disease, so, he says, “I know firsthand how difficult it is to go out to dinner because there’s usually three things on the whole menu that you can try. I never wanted anybody to come in here and feel like they’re missing out.”
But getting back to those family-style dinners: You’ll still find them every Friday and Saturday night, typically filled with a mix of folks who have been there before, as well as a number of neophytes. At the end of the feast, as diners leave the event, Pellegrino is often doling out handshakes and hugs, congratulating people on their milestones, and sending them out into the night with full bellies, huge smiles, and plans to return.
“You’re only here because of these other folks that have been here before,” he says. “You’re here because somebody wanted to share this experience with you, somebody told you about us, and somebody wanted you to see for yourself what we do. That’s the reason we’ve been able to do it—because people keep coming out.”
701 Craighead St., Berry Hill, 615-750-5233; facebook.com/mangianashville
Friday and Saturday family-style meal, $50 per person (reservations required)