In its heyday, the Hearth restaurant and nightclub on Gallatin Road in Madison was the place to party and be seen. One of Nashville’s most elegant nightspots, it was where the best musicians played, the stars drank (often too much), and the politicians danced. But by the early 1980s, the club wasn’t the destination it had been during the previous decades.
Then Biagio Sosta came to town.
A native of Nicosia, Sicily in southern Italy, the industrious Sosta had operated a number of restaurants and pizza parlors in New York, Florida and Georgia before coming to Nashville nearly three decades ago. In 1983 Sosta bought the club, renaming it Smeraldo’s, after the Italian word for “emerald.”
Not much has changed inside since the days of the Hearth; Smeraldo’s still maintains much of the same ambience it did when Sosta bought the club, with original wallpaper and fixtures that hearken back to a more carefree time when Nashville was more about real country music and personalities and perhaps less about commerce. The building has character, with a couple letters burned out on the neon sign on the side of the side of the building and the same huge parking lot in the back that was once filled every night.
“The economy has changed everything,” Sosta said in his thick Italian accent, from behind the bar in the classic basement, which features two pool tables and large-screen television, as well as a stage and dance floor which now only sees action on the weekends. “It’s not the same, but we keep on going.”
For many years Smeraldo’s featured live bands six, even seven nights a week. But like so many club owners, Sosta has had to scale back as times have changed, though the club still features live music on weekends. Lately, the Rockin’ Oswalds have been holding court on Friday and Saturday nights. The band is comprised of four veteran Nashville musicians, including drummer Randy Davis, who is also a co-owner of Crest Records, the label that at one time featured such artists as Eddie Cochran, Jimmy Bowen and Glen Campbell and recently issued new product by country singer Johnny Rodriguez. Davis said the band is happy to be working at a place with so much history.
“We love the acoustics in there, for one thing,” Davis said. “And we love the atmosphere as well; it’s got that retro atmosphere like the old days, and it’s a classy place. And Biagio is great to work for. He expects us to be professionals, and we like that and respect it.” The Rockin’ Oswalds play a mixture of Americana, classic rock, country and more, and often invite guest musicians, such as top Nashville session vocalist Bekka Bramlett, to sit in.
“A lot of well known musicians have worked at Smeraldo’s over the years, guys with the Opry and lots of professional players,” Davis said. “It’s a great place, it’s a fun gig and there’s a lot of history there.”
Sosta said that bands like the Rockin’ Oswalds, though, are just one in a long line of acts that have performed at the club. Sosta has seen countless bands come and go in his establishment, and most of those musicians were happy to just be making gas money on a Saturday night. One member of one of those bands decided not to settle for spending his life playing drums in a cover band. He was now-legendary songwriter Craig Wiseman, and Sosta remembers him well.
“Craig was always writing, and always trying to beat me at Pac-Man,” Sosta laughed, “but he never did. But I’m proud of him, he did so well for himself. He’s one rich guy now.”
There’s a lot more to Smeraldo’s than the music, though. Noted for his fine cuisine that originates from all regions of Italy, Sosta’s menu is Italian all the way, and is reasonably priced.
“I’m probably too reasonable,” Sosta said, rolling his eyes. A number of spaghetti dishes and lasagnas are available, and Sosta’s own homemade sausage makes his dishes unlike anything else in the area. “Everything is made with love and passion,” he said. And to cater to the working man, the club’s downstairs bar offers free pool in the bar from 5-7 p.m. daily with a variety of bar food available.
“This is a place where people come to relax,” Sosta said in a thick Italian accent. “I stay out of people’s business, just serve them and let them have a good meal and a good time. Smeraldo’s is open seven nights a week from 4 p.m. until close, which can be as late as 2 a.m. on a weekend night if the band draws a crowd.
Sosta said that, while people come and go, he still maintains a clientele of people who have called his restaurant their second home for years. “I’ve got a lot of good friends here,” he said, “and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the success and the great life I have in Nashville.”
For more information or reservations, call Smeraldo’s at 615-865-6533.
Story by Rick Moore