Italian Renaissance

Italian Renaissance

With Osteria Stella and Brother Wolf, the couple behind Sapphire emerge from the pandemic with flair.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 12, 2021

Aaron Thompson and Jessica King

Aaron Thompson and JessicA "Rabbit" king in front of the bar at Brother wolf. (Photo by Tommy Blankenship)

Jessica “Rabbit” King and Aaron Thompson landed in New York City on March 1, 2020, to spend some time consulting with a brand manager before heading to Italy on a research trip. The goal was to flesh out plans for their own Italian restaurant and bar in Knoxville’s Old City.

A year that included pandemic disruptions, losing a lease, having a baby and opening two new spaces.

This week, Osteria Stella opens to the public at 108 W. Jackson Ave., offering housemade pasta dishes and bread baked daily on the premises. Its adjacent bar, Brother Wolf, opened last week, with a drink list built around Italian liqueurs and wines.

But the intervening 16 months have been anything but smooth for the married couple and longtime downtown entrepreneurs.

“Had we not started this project two and a half years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do it in the timeline we had,” King said. In an interview last week in the dark, romantic dining room of Osteria Stella — with rose-festooned Italian chandeliers dangling above cozy two-tops — she and Thompson talked about the challenges and changes of the past year.

Those included the global pandemic that scuttled their trip to Italy and for a time shuttered Sapphire, their popular Gay Street nightspot; the loss of their lease as Sapphire’s building was first closed for renovations and then sold; finding financing for a new restaurant at a time when the industry was hamstrung by COVID-19 restrictions; and the birth of their first child, Stella, last summer.

None of that dented their determination to bring tastes of Italy to their hometown.

“We just want people to experience what we love,” Thompson said.

A Simple Style

The idea for the bar came first. King, a cocktail specialist who created the first drink menu for the upscale speakeasy Peter Kern Library, had fallen in love with both the flavors and ambiance of Italian bars.

“I've spent a lot of time in Italy, and I'm just absolutely enamored with the way that they live, the way that they drink, the way that they socialize,” she said. “It's just polar opposite to the way Americans do a lot of things. You don't see a lot of phones out, a lot of TVs going unless it's football. Brother Wolf was the initial plan to bring that aperitivo style of relaxed, upbeat, bright space, cafe style.”

The name nods to the mythological founding of Rome by Romulus, said by legend to have been raised by a she-wolf along with his twin brother, Remus.

When Thompson and King found a place for their concept, in the former location of the Old City Wine Bar, it came with an available restaurant space right next door — most recently home to Rebel Kitchen.

“We had to figure out how to do that and do it to our standard — create the restaurant that would be the most obvious accompaniment to the bar that we were planning,” King said.

The result is Osteria Stella, named for King and Thompson’s baby daughter. Its menu is derived from northern Italian cooking, overseen by chef Sal Sanchez with guidance from consulting chef (and Italian native) Amalia Brusati.

“A lot of our dishes are food that you would find on almost any menu in Milan or that region,” King said.

Thompson said the sometimes simple-seeming fare — such as ossobuco or cacio e pepe — is enlivened with bursts of flavor.

“The ossobuco is a good example of something that on its face is rustic, but then there's this enhancement with a gremolata on top,” he said, referring to a traditional Italian sauce of parsley, lemon and garlic. “It’s got this beautiful citrus zing when you're eating it, and it sort of lightens the whole dish.”

The dining room is painted black with splashes of color, and it includes three curtained booths to provide private spaces for romantic dinners. The silverware is an assortment of vintage pieces found at auction, but the brass menu plates and touch-sensitive table lamps add touches of sleek modernism. The overall effect is intended to be both warm and stylish.

“I’m the sommelier, and I made sure we have French crystal glassware,” Thompson said, indicating delicate wine glasses on the tabletop. “And we bought the most high-end ice machine you can have, so that we have cocktail ice.  We really spared no expense on making sure that the experience you have in here is going to be unique and great.”

The dining room at Osteria Stella. (Photo by Tommy Blankenship)

After an invitation-only soft opening over the past two weeks, Osteria Stella is open for reservations starting this week. Thompson said the major thing the restaurant still needs is a larger staff.

“We need more kitchen staff, more than anything else,” he said. Besides good pay, he said, evening staff are treated to a full family-style meal at the end of each shift. 

‘The Hardest Year’

The struggle to reach full staff — widely shared in the restaurant industry these days — is partly a reflection of the tumult of the past year, which Thompson and King experienced first-hand.

After their Italy trip was canceled in March 2020, as that country became an early center of the COVID-19 outbreak, they spent two weeks in New York working with their brand manager to hone their concepts for the new spaces. Then they flew home to Knoxville to deal with the pandemic’s impact on their existing business, Sapphire.

Thompson opened Sapphire in 2005, as downtown revitalization was just building momentum, and it became a Gay Street mainstay, drawing late-night crowds with its cocktail menu and friendly upscale ambiance. Its six-week closure last spring forced a series of recalibrations.

At first, it reopened only for take-out drink service (as allowed by Gov. Bill Lee’s orders during the pandemic). But even once Sapphire welcomed guests back in early summer, the combination of safety precautions and the general uncertainties of the public health crisis made it hard to find a footing.

“It was almost an immediate return to sales as people came back out to Sapphire on the weekends,” Thompson said of last June and July. “That being said, I don't know how good we felt about it, in that people just weren't taking it seriously.”

Mask and social distance requirements were almost impossible to enforce, even as COVID-19 numbers began to spike in the county. Then came a 10 p.m. curfew imposed by the county Board of Health, which heavily impacted the bar’s business. Staff began to leave as hours were cut. Meanwhile, King and Thompson were immersed in the world of new parenthood.

“It was definitely the hardest year for everybody I know, certainly for us as well,” Thompson said. “During this whole time, some of those times we weren’t able to be there (at Sapphire). I was also the head chef, I was cooking, and I didn't have a very big staff.”

As Sapphire struggled through the fall, the building’s owner informed Thompson that his lease on the space he had occupied for 15 years would expire at the end of December so that the entire structure could be renovated. It closed its doors Dec. 31. Clearing everything out of their space cost Thompson and King $20,000 of their own money.

The building at 428 S. Gay St. was subsequently sold in May for $4.2 million, and Thompson and King say the new owners have assured them they would like to have Sapphire back once renovations are complete. They are open to the possibility, depending on what terms can be worked out.

“We were there 15 years, we have a huge following, and we want to go back,” Thompson said. “We just have to make sure the terms are fair and that it makes sense for us and our brand.”

In the meantime, of course, they have their hands full with the new businesses. Thompson and King have nothing but kind words for their Old City landlord, Jon Clark, who has been involved in downtown redevelopment for the past two decades.

“He has been such an advocate,” King said of Clark. “He has given us support in every possible way to facilitate our restaurant and bar.”

They are also grateful to Capstar Bank, a Nashville institution with a branch in Farragut that was willing to help with financing at a time when many banks had stopped lending to the hospitality industry.

“We had one bank tell us, ‘We just don’t do restaurants right now,’” Thompson said.

Three mirrors in the Osteria Stella dining room are painted with Italian phrases: “Si Coraggiosa,” “Si Fortie,” “Si Gentile.” They mean, “Be brave,” “Be strong,” and “Be kind.”

“That’s kind of our ode to Stella, our wish for her,” King said of their daughter, who both of them expect will be helping out in the dining room as soon as she’s old enough.

The phrases could also be read as a summary of the values that have borne King and Thompson through the uncertainties of the past year. More than anything, they are looking forward to sharing their new places with the rest of Knoxville.

Thompson said that after years on Gay Street, it is exciting to be part of the newly energized Old City, which has seen an influx of new housing and dining options.

“We want to be part of the community down here,” he said, “and we want to execute at a very high level. We’re really excited for people to see what we can do as a restaurant.”