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Italy and the American South Collide Head-On at Rolf & Daughters

Many of the best chefs in the American South have a fondness for canoodling with Italian flavors. The two cultures' foodways entwine effortlessly, given their mutual agrarian roots, long growing seasons, and devotion to pork and vegetables. Frank Stitt, an early adapter, opened Birmingham's Bottega in 1988 and still serves collusions like grouper with fregola sarda, Sea Island peas from South Carolina, currants, and pine nuts. Earlier this year Hugh Acheson debuted The Florence in Savannah, where trout comes with rice grits and salmoriglio (Southern Italy's answer to pesto) and tagliatelle entangles pork belly and burrata. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman, who run Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Hog & Hominy in Memphis, wrote a cookbook called Collards and Carbonara. Enough said.

Philip Krajeck, the chef-owner of Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, came to Italian cuisine through early exposure. He spent part of his childhood in Belgium and lived near families who'd immigrated from the Boot. He learned to make pasta from Italians he worked alongside in a Swiss hotel-culinary school. After nearly a decade in Florida (he earned four James Beard noms for his cooking at Fish Out of Water on Santa Rosa Beach), he moved to Nashville in 2012, launching his own restaurant at the base of a loft building refashioned from a century-old factory.

rold and daughter Butter bean agonolotti

Butter bean agonolotti

One can suss out the Italian-Southern mingling on Krajeck's menu—butter bean agnolotti with chanterelles, for starters—but it's best not to overanalyze. Just relax into his soothing, country-cool cooking. Those agonolotti are masterful, the triangles of al dente pasta giving way to the gush of pureed, dairy-rich beans. Krajeck's signature is squid ink canestri, a ridged macaroni (the preferred pasta shape of Southerners). He pairs it these days with 'nduja (the Calabrian-inspired salumi with the consistency of deviled ham), clams, and breadcrumbs nearly the size of small croutons.

rolf and daughters
rolf and daughters green wheat

Left: Squid ink canestri with nduja and clams. Right: Green wheat with green tomatoes, cucumbers, and dates

The pastas, in hype and in actuality, steal focus. But many non-noodle dishes entice as well. Start with the $5 house-baked sourdough served with butter given an umami left hook by whipping it with momoya (Japanese seaweed paste)—a prime example of why exceptional bread service is worth charging for. Toasted slices act as crostini for punchy dry-aged beef tartare, angled over a pool of salsa verde. Another wheaty wonder: Freekeh (the young, roasted grain) is the foundation of a stunner scattered with slivered green tomatoes and cucumbers, torn parsley and mint, and a healthy dose of the Turkish chile urfa biber.

rolf and daughters

Hankering for protein? Krajeck takes pride in his whole-animal pig cookery, and his mixed roast of pork includes lean pork loin, fat-stippled belly, and sausage with smart seasonal fillips like green peanut stew and halved okra seared hard enough to dispel its sliminess. And his pastured chicken is simple righteousness: golden skin, succulent meat, and a hearty dousing of garlic confit and preserved lemon.

I left with no regrets.

Rolf & Daughter's cocktails are nearly as destination-worthy as the food—and that's saying a lot in a town that cottons to drinkers. Something Italian: a gentle version of a Negroni made with Pimm's. Something Southern: the Wingman, combining Four Roses bourbon with Dolin Dry and Peychaud's bitters. I even passed over pear-almond tart and zeppoles for a liquid dessert—the Cervantes (Smith & Cross rum, Madeira, CioCiaro amaro, lemon oil, and Angostura bitters) with caramel depth and citrus shimmer. I left with no regrets.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Photos: Bill Addison

Rolf & Daughters

700 Taylor Street, Nashville, TN 37208 615-866-9897
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