BRISTOL, Tenn. — In 2015, Chef Keith Yonker's dream of living in Northeast Tennessee came true when Eastman Chemical Co. hired the Chicago-area native to be the company's artisan chef and oversee its seven cafes. Yonker later opened The Angry Italian in downtown Bristol.
Billed as a Chicago-inspired pizzeria, the restaurant started out in a small storefront on a side street and quickly gained a faithful following. Pizza is a big draw, including Chicago deep dish choices, which contain over 1.5 pounds of Wisconsin mozzarella, hand-crushed Roma tomatoes and a variety of topping choices. They also require 45 minutes preparation time.
Earlier this year, The Angry Italian moved to 714 State St., a much larger space that also offers outdoor seating. The menu is much more than pizza. There are 10 appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, and chicken, veal and shrimp entrees.
From the menu's introduction of the chef and restaurant: "Keith is excited to introduce Chicago-inspired Italian to Eastern Tennessee. Keith says his philosophy is simple. 'We wish to provide you with the best in authentic Chicago style pizza and sandwiches, surround you with a place that makes you feel welcome, where you meet old friends for lunch and dinner, and make new ones. And, where you can always catch a game on and leave full and satisfied.'
"Oh, and if you are wondering WHY we call it The Angry Italian ... just lean your ears toward our kitchen. You will figure it out. (He's really not angry, just animated.)"
Yonker's passion for the culinary arts started at a young age, and his career has led him all over the U.S., working for a variety of restaurants and resorts: Morton's in California; Charlie's Crab in Palm Beach, Florida; Casa Restaurants in Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Starwood Resorts in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
One of his greatest culinary honors was when Yonker was selected for the National Pizza Team (twice) and competed in Italy, placing eighth in the world.
Our brief Q&A with Yonker:
Q: How long has your restaurant been in operation?
A: Five years.
Q: What do you consider the specialties at your restaurant and why?
A: Chicago-inspired cuisine, recipes from my childhood and grandfather.
Q: What is your culinary education and how did you learn to do what you do in the kitchen?
A: Degree in hotel and restaurant administration; degree in culinary arts; culinary internship with Disney; pizza competition in Tuscany, taking eighth in the world.
Q: Explain in as much detail as possible why your restaurant is appealing to customers and how you maintain that ambience.
A: I offer a food that is new to the Tri City region, menu items from Chicago, not just Italian, but what represents the city. My mother, son and fiancee also work with me, so it is a family type of atmosphere, with emphasis on great food and service.
Q: Do you share recipes with your diners? If so, please share your favorite recipe.
A: My recipes are very simple and straightforward, from meatballs to marinara.
Q: How do you think your restaurant differs from other restaurants in the Tri-Cities region?
A: I utilize authentic items from the Chicagoland area and items that I used when I was learning to cook, that are still available after all these years. It is as authentic as you will get, as I tell my guests, the only thing I can't get from Chicago is the water.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of your location?
A: Great visibility, patio that seats 24 guests; drawback is not easily accessible for curbside pickup.
Q: How often do you change the menu at the restaurant and why?
A: Menu changes once or twice a year to reflect popularity and cost.
Q: What’s your favorite cookbook?
A: The Mafia Cookbook, of course.