by Paulette Licitra

I come from a long line of pasta and pizza eaters.

My parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents (and Iâ€TMm guessing a few generations before them) came from, or descended from, Italy. The Italian gene has a hungry appetite for pizza and pasta. You might say it cooks in our DNA.

So when I visit a pizzeria or Italian restaurant my ancestry antennae are on full alert. Iâ€TMm anticipating great taste, but Iâ€TMm on guard for imposters. Luckily, in the Nashville area, thereâ€TMs plenty of authenticity from which to choose.

What makes a great pizza? For me itâ€TMs two things: great crust and (limited) great toppings. Donâ€TMt give me a pizza so laden with toppings that a wedge flops down wet noodle-ish. No soft crust for me. No pale crust. No tasteless crust. Great crust crunches. Has a bit of chew to it. Bubbles up on the edges. Has a bit of char, too.

Bella Nashville at the Nashville Farmersâ€TM Market has got it down: crust, toppings, flavor. So does Bella Napoli in Edgehill Village. Chef Paolo Tramontono is from the Naples area where pizza was born. Itâ€TMs a way of life for him and we lucky pizza-eaters get to taste what youâ€TMd taste at a pizzeria in Naples.

Also with a great pizza touch is Skyking Pizza in Kingston Springs. They shipped in a multi-ton pizza oven to their shop. Itâ€TMs sheer pleasure just catching a glimpse of its fiery glow. The better pleasure is a crunchy bite from their perfect pizza.

Nick Pellegrinoâ€TMs Mangia Nashville, at its new location in Melrose, ties together inventive and classic in his pizza-like focaccia. You can still party at his dinners-laced-with-music on weekend evenings, but during the week munch on a menu of focaccia topped with beautifully cooked porchetta, sausage, broccoli rabe, mozzarella, swiss chard, artichoke, prosciutto and arugula. And heâ€TMs created a new bread (and a new favorite of mine): black carbon bread. Yes, itâ€TMs black. And dee-licious. Nick perfected a Roman recipe for this unusual bread and itâ€TMs a wow.

The other ubiquitous Italian staple is, of course, pasta. (What would Italians do without flour?) Growing up in my family we called it macaroni (just like Yankee Doodle). Weâ€TMre tough pasta critics because we make it at home all the time. Our way. A restaurant pasta dish shivers under our scrutiny.

But give me a bowl of pasta at Cafe Nonna in Sylvan Park anytime. It always fills that comfort food craving perfectly. Pairing their pasta with their sauces is a “one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B” game, one that teases your taste buds with possibilities. All too often I land on the same combination: Fettuccine with White Clam Sauce. It arrives luscious and steaming. Spoonful by spoonful it satisfies until in a flash—itâ€TMs all gone.

I also treat my palate to Trattoria Mulinoâ€TMs Capellini and Arugula Pesto. Capellini is that thinnest of pasta strands that ups the ante of any sauce you pair with it. The arugula pesto (with black pepper and pistachios) gives those silky strands delicious flavor and bite.

Any Italian—or Italian food-lover—possesses that irresistible craving to cook Italian dishes at home. Sure, the supermarkets have plenty of good ingredients, but we also have specialty shops jam-packed with Italian imports and locally created Italian wonders.

Letâ€TMs start with Lazzaroli Pasta in Germantown. Owner Tom Lazzaro is the king of ravioli. When you enter the store you encounter the aroma of hundreds of Italian ingredients packed on the shelves, stacked in the cases and piled in baskets. Just behind the retail area is Tomâ€TMs kitchen, which you can see through a window. Sheets and sheets of fresh-made semolina pasta are filled with classic and inventive ravioli fillings: sausage and asiago, lobster and shrimp, artichoke, gorgonzola, mushroom, four-cheese, goat cheese and pear. Makes my head spin. And he makes a variety of sauces for you to take home.

Tom sells guanciale from Salumi in Seattle (Mario Bataliâ€TMs fatherâ€TMs place), all manner of Italian condiments, dried pastas, cheeses, olive oils, vinegars, plus lots of local artisan products. (He carries Bentonâ€TMs bacon.)

Cocoâ€TMs Italian Market, on 51st off of Charlotte, is another Italian market. Owner Chuck Cinelli is a tireless curator of imported Italian goods. Heâ€TMs traveled to Italy to find all the best products just for you.

The market feels like an Italian outdoor feast. Shelves are overfull with imported hard-to-find pastas, Italian rice, cookies, condiments, coffees and chocolates. Cocoâ€TMs carries Italian coffee pots and pasta makers. They have their own gelato stand and imported salumi you can buy by the pound. My favorite is the Citterio mortadella—this cold cut is the real deal. Itâ€TMs a native of Bologna and truly reminiscent of bologna (baloney), except the Italian original has chunks of (yummy) white fat and pistachio nuts. You can get that here.

You can get cannoli shells ready for filling. Ladyfinger cookies for making tiramisu. And—I love this—seed packets from Italy. Last year I grew real San Marzano tomatoes (that Campania classic). This year I picked up seed packs of hot cherry tomatoes, wild fennel and cicoria, a pencil-thin bitter salad green that Iâ€TMve only ever seen in Italy. Just beyond the toy-store-for-foodies market is Cocoâ€TMs very popular restaurant.

These are my favorites. There are surely other authentic Italian tastes all over Nashville. I havenâ€TMt gotten to them all. Iâ€TMm usually too busy cooking Italian food at home. What are your favorites?

BIO