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Just Like Your Mama Wished She Could Make:

Nashville Artisan Foods by JOE NOLAN

Nashville's current food trend can be described in three words: local, unique, artisan! From small, organic, specialty farms, to food-crafters producing small-batch, handmade products, mom-and-pop notions about freshness and quality are creating big waves in a market dominated by chain restaurants and industrial kitchen.

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Local providers have combined their love of food, with passion, imagination, a lot of elbow grease and a touch of devil-may-care entrepreneurship. The result is an upwelling of neighborhood specialty shops, where skilled experts use local ingredients to create one-of-a-kind delights.

LAS PALETAS

Nashville's 12th South neighborhood has become a bustling center of activity peppered with restaurants, cafes and specialty markets. The biggest success story on the block is Las Paletas. This little- popsicle-store-that-could is one of the neighborhood's longest-lived success stories, and they don't even have a sign.

In 2001, sisters Norma and Irma Paz were two determined young women, not exactly sure what they were going to do in Nashville. Norma had relocated to Nashville from Los Angeles, with a background in business and a yen to start one of her own. Irma, on the other hand, was a busy television producer, flying between the coasts, looking for a change. They set about looking for a business idea to get passionate about together.

"Sometimes people think we've been really lucky," explains Irma, with characteristic enthusiasm. "Some just think we're crazy. It's probably been a little bit of both."

After spending months searching " and researching " possible missions for their new business, it was a trip back to their native country of Mexico that lead to a cool idea and current local sensation.

The Paz sisters grew up on the same kind of refreshing paletas they now offer in their inconspicuous shop on 12 South. They use the same straightforward and ingredients-centered process used for generations in their home country.

Las Paletas offers two distinctly different kinds of popsicles. The first, features fresh fruit, frozen on a popsicle stick. The other variety features the addition of ice-cream base, resulting in a creamy, smooth version that is distinctly different from it's crisp, cool, cousin.

But what really makes Las Paletas special is the exotic range of flavors they make available: rose petals, hibiscus, mango andpeanut butter, regularly appear on the large chalk board behind the cash register at the store. The improvised menu changes hourly, depending on availability of fresh ingredients and customer traffic. The Paz sisters bring unique accents to their paletas with a Mexican culinary trinity that includes salt, lime and chilies, but it's the secret ingredient that Irma shares in an uncharacteristically, hushed tone: "It's all about energy," she confides. "People buy paletas because every single one is made with love and pleasure. You can really taste that!"

LAZAROLLI PASTA

When asked how he would define the word artisan, Nashville's Pied Piper of fresh pasta mentions words like "handcrafted" and "local," but it's clear that he hasn't made his point until he starts to talk about "passion."

Tom Lazarolli's Italian specialty shop goes beyond imported groceries to offer homemade, fresh pasta and ravioli, sauces and take-and-bake meals. Neither a restaurant or a deli, Lazarolli Pasta is strictly a grab- and-go deal, affording the busiest"and laziest" home cooks the opportunity to incorporate gourmet goodnessinto their favorite takes on Italian fare. Given their growing following, it seems many of Lazarolli's regulars have already left their dry pasta and sauce jars behind forever.

"We make all of our ravioli and pasta products by hand, including our homemade sauces," says Tom. "We prepare our take-and-bake dishes from scratch." In addition, Lazarolli's regularly features local, seasonal ingredients in its recipes. In fact, the selection of produce at the Nashville Farmer's Market, just a few blocks away, was one of the inspiring factors that pushed Tom to open his doors in the first place.

"We try and incorporate as many local ingredients in our products as possible," says Tom. "This summer and fall we used locally grown white and red sweet potatoes, eggplant and herbs and squash in our ravioli."

Lazarolli is more than happy to let his delicious meals and groceries speak for themselves, but its clear that he understands the important role food like his plays in the ongoing development of our city.

"It helps give our community substance, character and identity," he explains. "We all get tired of the big box food chains."

JOURNEY TO BLISS RAW FOODS

Laura Button is a woman on a mission. On the one hand, she is a dedicated mom (her business is named for her two daughters, Journey and Bliss), and a busy entrepreneur. On the other hand she is an advocate for the healthful, tasty wonders of raw foods and the importance of local, sustainable agriculture.

"My personal goal and the goal of our business is to be a model that says you can get local produce," explains Button. "You can have local food available at your restaurant or business."

Button embraced the raw-foods lifestyle thirty years ago and her fit form, and enthusiastic energy offer convincing evidence for her cause. But don't get the idea that raw food necessarily means bor- ing, repetitive, not-so-tasty food. Journey' offers everything from the expected, yummy salads, to completely unexpected desserts and specialty items.

From mango cheesecake to a pretty convincing meatloaf, Laura stretches her imagination as much as her kitchen skills to create healthy foodstuffs that represent themselves surprisingly well in the flavor department. Ever have a cheese made from Brazil nuts, or a truffle made from raw cacao" Try them. You'll like them.

Button also highlights the role that local food producers play in her recipes and credits her partner Scott Weiss for many of the connections they have made with local farmers. "He's been a huge part of that," she explains. "He's been a member of every C.S.A. in Nashville at one point or another." It is this relationship between Journey and local farmers that Button credits with the success of her business.

"In many ways, the farmers are leading the community," she explains. "The farmers are the rock stars. We have to stay true to that Idea. It doesn't mean anything without these people."

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