The 100-year-old building that stands at the corner of Montford and Chestnut avenues has long been a staple of the neighborhood, a gathering place for those who live nearby. Formerly a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, then a church, the property reopened in November as a vibrant Italian restaurant owned by Robert and Melissa Willingham, career restaurateurs from Baltimore who moved to Asheville nearly four years ago.
The couple’s goal with Chiesa, which translates to church in Italian, is to provide an inviting social atmosphere for the community with easygoing staff, flavorful home-cooked food and a friendly ambiance.
On Jan. 13, the restaurant will begin offering Tuesday-night family-style church suppers, something Robert says was a priority even before finding the restaurant’s location in Montford.
“We want to be a real neighborhood restaurant: We’ve got the location for it, we really want the neighbors to come, and that’s why we’re hosting these community suppers,” he says. “There’s a thousand people who live in this neighborhood but they don’t necessarily know each other. When you sit down to dinner and break bread together, it gives you a much greater sense of community, and hopefully you get to know your neighbors a little better.”
The family-style suppers will feature a prix fixe menu with vegetarian or non-vegetarian choices, with the long tables at Chiesa pushed together to encourage people to get to know each other. The Willinghams say that Asheville’s friendly nature fits perfectly with this social style of dining, where neighbors can interact over a bottle of good wine and some homemade lasagna or stuffed pasta shells.
The concept is a natural evolution for Melissa’s family recipes, which have connected people in a family setting for generations, she says. And the restaurant’s open floor plan is well-suited to the task.
“It took us a long time to find this space — we looked at everything,” she says. “Community was really important to us.”
At Chiesa, diners won’t find checkered red-and-white tablecloths or chianti bottles with candles stuffed in them. It has a clean décor, with original hardwood floors and church pews, tall ceilings, a copper-topped bar and photographs of Italian scenes decorating the walls. A custom-made stained-glass sign hangs above the warm entrance of the 40-seat restaurant.
“This building, being in an old church, by its very nature has a warm community feel,” Robert notes. “We’re putting everything we can into it to get more of that. We really want to be here for the Montford folks and for the greater Asheville community.”
Melissa’s great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Sicily and ran a produce business in Baltimore. They brought their recipes with them, and now those traditional dishes provide the backbone of the fare offered at Chiesa.
Entrées on the ever-changing, small menu include homemade meat sauce with Hickory Nut Gap Farm beef or sweet Italian sausage, natural chicken with saffron, green olives and mint, veal stew and vegetarian and vegan options. Soft-shell crabs will be offered when they’re in season this summer.
Melissa says the family recipes have transferred perfectly to the restaurant setting.
“We do everything in really small batches,” she says. “I don’t make 50 of anything, I make 20 of something. We’re keeping the preparations small and intimate, and the menu small and intimate, changing it frequently to keep it fresh.”
The idea for a social supper came from the Willinghams’ travels to Italy, where the practice is much more common than it is in America.
“They have a strong sense of community in Italy and they do want to sit together, whereas Americans typically want to sit alone with their own party; it is really an Italian-type thing,” Robert says. “We’ve already gotten a big positive response about this in Asheville, so I think this is great for this place.”
Chiesa plans to open an additional 24 seats on a side patio in the spring, along with lunch service.
“We’ve gotten a great response from the neighborhood so far,” Robert says, “and we’re really excited for the future and what it will bring.”