KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “Italian food is very traditional, very classic, it's also something that requires a lot of hands on attention,” said Matt Gallaher, owner of Emilia Italian.

Whether it's romance, family gatherings, or celebration, Emilia courts customers with handmade Italian.

“Anytime we get guests in for their first visit, we try to steer them near pasta,” Gallaher said. “That's kind of our bread and butter. If you like that, you're probably going to like everything else.”

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As one of Knoxville's best-known chefs, Gallaher began dreaming up Emilia's on the second anniversary of his first restaurant, Knox Mason.

But his path to the kitchen was unconventional. He got a degree in chemical engineering.

“I thought if I'm going to give up my degree to cook for a living, I want to open my own restaurant and be my own boss,” said Gallaher.

His culinary school was Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee.

“It was a tremendous experience, but after 4 years, I had an opportunity to cook for bands and travel,” said Gallaher. “14 countries.  4 continents.  I was at a concert every day. I was cooking every day.”

And then, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam called.

“They wanted to hire me and I'd never cooked for them,” remembered Gallaher.

Matt was the Haslams’ personal chef at the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville until he moved back to Knoxville in 2012.

4 years later, Emilia's opened its doors.

“We're committed to making everything in house,” said Gallaher.  “So, all the pasta, cheese and bread kind of gets made under one roof.”

When it comes to Italian cuisine, Gallaher says he’s self-taught.

“I bought probably 60 cookbooks and read them cover to cover,”

He has traveled to Italy, but very briefly.

“I spent 48 hours in Bologna. I was cooking for Kings of Leon and they had a show there.  And, Bologna is actually in the Emilia-Romagna region, so the only place I’ve been to in Italy is where the building blocks for Italian cuisine start.”

The name, Emilia, also has family ties and was a perfect fit!

“My grandmother’s name is Emily and Emilia is the Italian word for Emily.”

The décor is rustic and inviting by design.

“Elegant, but it's also very simple,” said Gallaher.

Heirloom plates hang on the wall and old olive baskets double as light fixtures.

“When they harvest olives, there are special baskets that they use,” explained Gallaher.

While pasta is the specialty, Gallaher and chef de cuisine Steve Leitner get creative not only with seasonal produce, but also the fresh catch.

“I never thought that we would serve as much octopus as we do,” admitted Leitner.

Yes, you heard correctly - octopus. It's quickly become the Chef's choice!

“It's probably the most satisfying dish we have here,”said Leitner.  It can be very intimidating. The dish started out as a special and it was incredibly popular, so we put it on the menu and we sell a lot of octopus, more than I thought we would.”

It’s one of several signature dishes adding extra flavor to the experience of Emilia’s comfortable cuisine.

“People have told us it feels like being in someone's home,” said Gallaher.

KNOX MASON MOVING ON GAY STREET

Gallaher opened his first restaurant, Knox Mason, on South Gay Street. He’s in the process of moving the downtown staple to the mezzanine level of the Conley Building.  Construction is currently converting the property to an Embassy Suites and Gallaher hopes to open the restaurant in the Fall of 2019.

He also owns Paysan Bread, a Knoxville bakery focusing on fresh breads and bagels on Tyson Street.