Note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. to remove erroneous references to ingredients at two other restaurants.
I keep thinking I'm about to catch a glimpse of Drake from my peripheral. He prides himself on his deep Tennessee roots, particularly Memphis. I know he's privy to Chattanooga from the time he shouted the city out on his 2015 song "30 for 30 Freestyle." I also know he has an affinity for Italian food. His verses are drizzled with references to the cuisine. On "Middle of the Ocean," he raps about "short rigatoni with the pesto." On "Stay Schemin'" he mentions "spaghetti bolognese at the Polo Lounge" and brags that his "summer diet is just rosé and calamari" on "4PM in Calabasas." Drake would love Chattanooga's Alleia the same way he loves Il Mulino — famous for its branzino — uber-trendy Carbone and Sotto Sotto, a brick and chandeliered "ristorante" in his hometown of Toronto.
What: Rustic Italian food with a regional nod in a dim, upscale setting.
Where: 25 E. Main St.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays.
Prices: $16 for the fried Rhode Island calamari to $28 for the angel hair pasta with gulf shrimp and soffitto.
Reservations: 423-305-6990 or resy.com.
Designed by Rodney Simmons of Revival Studios, Alleia is dim and edgy but still somehow soft enough around the edges to be described as cozy. The weirdly captivating cascade of candle wax, the custom-made banquette that seems to stretch from the dining room to at least the Shallowford Road exit, the warmth of the earth tones all make it aesthetically unique compared with anything that currently exists in Chattanoogaland.
Of course there are mainstays, but a significant chunk of Alleia's menu is fluid and could change daily based on the availability of black truffles and yellow-edge grouper or if a certain heirloom tomato isn't in season or if a certain watermelon is. Or if the chef has just returned from a trip to the Amalfi Coast, tanned, smelling like nebbiolo — an Italian red grape variety — and inspired to tweak beef carpaccio into something epic. An example of this fluidity is the pillowy gnocchi. Sometimes it's paired with chicken sausage and shiitake mushrooms, while other times the combination sways toward blue crab and oyster mushrooms.
In my opinion, the nonnetto, or grandfather, of all antipasti offering is calamari. I've never been to any Italian restaurant and not ordered it. Never mind the wrong people who think calamari tastes like seafood-flavored rubber bands. They've never eaten the fried squid here. The calamari from Alleia is shipped from Rhode Island, which is to calamari what the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo is to wagyu beef, and also home to the annual calamari festival in Narragansett. I suggest a spritz of lemon before falling in love with how they're at once crispy and tender.
Restaurant Scene: Alleia is the best Italian restaurant in a city full of Italian restaurants
The gulf shrimp tangled in the angel hair pasta are cooked so flawlessly their tails have no chance of ever touching their heads. This angel hair dish in particular trampled my ignorance of sofrito being limited to boricuas cooking pollo guisado and arroz con gandules in El Barrio aka Spanish Harlem. Alleia doesn't downgrade veal to the status of a cutlet. It's never pounded to a pulp, breaded and fried. Instead it's braised and folded into ribbons of pappardelle, a flat pasta. Even when most think the only way to gussy up ravioli is to plumpen it with some sort of lobster-based filling, Alleia's ravioli might be stuffed with butternut squash, festooned with crushed walnuts and barely floating in a puddle of brown butter. There's even a recurring presence of agnolotti, a folded and filled pasta, and crinkly mafalda and conchiglie, all made fresh daily.
There are things at Alleia that scream Italian like Luciano Pavarotti — for example, the classic margherita pizza that comes out of their gorgeous 750-degree oven so thin, you could probably fold it into a paper airplane. The hand-dipped ricotta bruschetta and lambrusco. Then there's other things at Alleia that speak broken Italian with an eastern Tennessee accent like venison, fig-infused whiskey and the pride of Madisonville, Benton's bacon. It's wrapped around quail breast and medjool dates, adding its unfiltered porkiness to the spaghetti all'Amatriciana and legitimizing the notion that "bacon makes everything better."
Simply put, Alleia is the best Italian restaurant in a city full of Italian restaurants.
I'm not dissing Il Primo's chicken marsala or the prosciutto e melone at Boccaccia. They play pivotal parts in the greater good of Chattanooga's dining landscape. I'd never scoff at anybody for thinking the shrimp scampi at Olive Garden is delicious. I'll never suggest you deprive yourself of the loaded fettuccine from Fazoli's.
This is just a declaration that Alleia is the Italian "ristorante" that Chattanooga needs if it wants to wiggle itself into the conversation of being a "cosmopolitan" type of city.
Or if anybody wants to get a selfie with Drake while he's walking off his tagliatelle bolognese down East Main Street.