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Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2017

River City: Red Sauce offers Italian to satisfy a New Yorker’s especially picky palate

Stop the presses! I’m not sure if a newspaper has ever stopped the presses for any story, but this one is big: My wife – a Bronx, New York, native, a woman whose taste buds were raised by original Italian cooking prepared by original Italians and a notoriously picky eater – liked an Italian restaurant in Chattanooga.

No. Scratch that. She LOVED it.

You could have hit me on the back of the head with a two-by-four, and I wouldn’t have been more surprised.

I’ve taken her to a couple of the fancy Italian restaurants in town and dropped more than $100 on a meal only to earn a shrug for my investment. She simply has a narrow range of flavor preferences, and no one has hit them all. Until now.

Until we went to Red Sauce, a new Italian eatery on West Kent Street on the North Shore. When she met the chef, Adam Marro, she actually pinched her fingers together, kissed them and went “Muah!” I’d never seen her do that before.

I was thrilled the evening ended that way because it started with my wife feeling a little chilly about the place. We arrived as the sun was setting on Red Sauce’s first Saturday in business. Before we’d even parked (for free, across the street), she wondered out loud about the size of the place, which is small for a restaurant with big food.

The building, located one block off Cherokee Boulevard, for years housed a drive-through bank. Chattanooga developer John Wise turned it into a restaurant earlier this year called Sip Coffee + Kitchen. (See the July 7 issue of the Hamilton County Herald.)

That restaurant’s short lifespan paved the way for Danny and Brittany Alcala, owners of Cuban-themed restaurant Embargo 62 and Ooltewah’s Ceniza Lounge (see the Dec. 9, 2016 issue of the Hamilton County Herald), to transform the same space into Red Sauce.

It’s not easy to fit a restaurant into a small space, my wife and I agreed. But the crew at Red Sauce did its best.

Like Sip Coffee + Kitchen, Red Sauce has one small indoor dining area. This is flanked by an outdoor eating area on one side and an outdoor lounge on the other. Unlike the previous establishment, which had several tables for two in its indoor dining area, Red Sauce has placed a single large table in its primary space. When we arrived, two people were seated at either end of the table.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: it’s an awkward set up, especially if you’re hoping for an intimate dinner with your companion and wind up sitting next to strangers. Several seats are available along the bar but those won’t be comfortable for everyone.

The young man who was assigned to seat us grabbed a couple of red fleece blankets and started to walk us to the outdoor eating area. He must have seen the hesitancy on our faces, given the nip in the air, as he assured us that the blankets and heaters would keep us toasty.

Thankfully – and I can’t emphasize that word enough – one of the couples was preparing to leave, so we were able to secure their spot at the big table. (Red Sauce is outfitting its outdoor dining area with panels that can block the elements, so there should be plenty of warm, private seating for the cold months that lie ahead.)

Within moments of taking our seats, we met our guide through our culinary adventure that evening: Kristen Alston. She handed us menus, took our drink orders and left us to browse through the restaurant’s selections.

Red Sauce’s menu seems tailored to make hungry patrons hungrier. At least that was my experience as I glanced over the appetizers, salads, hero sandwiches (which gives Red Sauce a touch of Philly), meatball dishes and other entrees.

How was I supposed to choose between the Don’t Go Breaking My Cheese Balls and The Bada Bing, Bada Boom stuffed meatball for my starter? Or the Spicy Pork Meatballs and Fettuccine Alfredo for my entree? It wasn’t going to be easy.

My wife, who’s on a meal plan that excludes breads and pastas, was worried about being able to find something she could eat, but she settled on the Goomba’s Eggplant, which comes with a slice of fried eggplant covered in red sauce and mozzarella cheese. She also ordered a meatball on the side.

I settled on an order of the cheese balls and Guido’s Lasagna, which consists of a blend of beef, sausage, red sauce and ricotta.

The offerings at Red Sauce are more diverse than our selections reflected. Seafood, chicken and steak are all on the menu and have been given an Italian twist. The crispy calamari and shrimp appetizer was tempting, and I almost went with the Chicken Balls for my main course.

Marro has also put together a kid’s menu and a selection of utterly decadent house-made desserts.

While we waited for our meals to arrive, we took a few moments to soak up the atmosphere. Like the names of the dishes, the décor and music teetered between playful and “on the nose.”

For music, we were treated to the deep, soothing voice of Frank Sinatra. I thought it fit the setting, but my wife said they were playing Ol’ Blue Eyes just to make the place seem more Italian. That’s what they play in Italian restaurants where she’s from.

I guess the same was true of the décor, which consists of photos of Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, as well as one of an old Italian woman cooking.

Whatever. It works. My wife was still skeptical but I assured her nothing else about the place would matter if the food was good. I was already convinced it would be based on the small loaf of house-baked bread I’d consumed, which arrived sitting in a splash of olive oil and topped with freshly shredded Parmesan cheese, and the cheese balls, which were delicious.

Then, as if on cue, our meals arrived.

The presentation was phenomenal. When you drop a lot of coin on a meal, you want to be wowed as the server places your plates in front of you – and Marro did not disappoint. The plates weren’t decorated fancily or overly artsy; they were laden with delicious-looking food.

Marro had baked the lasagna in a small, square cast-iron skillet. It arrived in the skillet with slightly burned cheese dripping over the edges. I gasped when I realized the entire serving was a corner piece! Everyone knows the corner pieces are the best.

I dipped my fork into the center and pulled up a steaming bite of beef, sausage and pasta. As I took my first taste, the cheese stretched all the way from the skillet to my mouth. Even better: it was scrumptious. I was especially pleased with the sausage, which was flavorful but not overwhelmingly so.

I looked at my wife to see if she was enjoying her meal and was shocked by what I saw. On the rare occasion when she likes her food, she hunkers down over her plate and digs in. As I glanced up from my lasagna, she was in full hunkered-down mode.

Remarkably, she was impressed with the sauce on her Goomba’s Eggplant. I say “remarkably” because she’s never impressed with sauce. She said it wasn’t spicy or otherwise overly seasoned but had a mild flavor that struck the perfect chord with her taste buds.

My wife gave her highest praise to the breading on the eggplant, which she says triggered a flavor memory from a five-star restaurant in New York City. I almost choked on a bite of my Caesar salad.

My description of our adventure in Chattanooga’s Little Italy would be incomplete without one final bit of gushing: the service was superb.

Alston’s sweet demeanor brightened our moods as we sat down at our table – but it was her attentiveness that impressed us the most.

While my wife was trying to figure out what she could eat, Alston patiently made several helpful suggestions and assured her Chef Marro would have no problem adjusting the dishes to suit her needs. When she whisked off the plate that had held the cheese balls, she immediately brought back clean forks for our meal. And I’m not sure how she did this, but every time I sipped the last of my iced tea, she appeared as if my magic with a new glass. (She did this four times. I was thirsty.)

Alston’s best move, however, came when I told her how much my wife liked the sauce on her eggplant. Within less than a minute, she produced a to-go bag with a container of sauce for us to take home – on the house.

Not once did we ask Alston for something; rather, she keep an eye on us and predicted our needs. If there’s a contest for best server in Chattanooga, consider this my nomination for our superstar.

Although my wife and I did not consume any alcohol, there is an extensive list of cocktails, martinis, wines and beers, all of which would have come from the well-stocked bar in the main dining area.

Red Sauce is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. It’s closed on Mondays, probably to let Ol’ Blue Eyes rest his vocal chords.

After our meal, my wife and I sat in the outdoor lounge for a few minutes, enjoying the comfortable seating and warmth of the fire pit. With the sun having disappeared by that time, it was a relaxing end to a wonderful meal.

New restaurants are popping up across Chattanooga, and odds are a few them will go the way of Sip Coffee + Kitchen. But if the people of Scenic City have a taste for great Italian food prepared and served with pride and respect, Red Sauce has a shot at being around for years to come.

I hope it is. I now have a go-to restaurant for special occasions and am eager to try more of their dishes.