Misty Mills welcomes Bearden diners to Merelli’s

Tracy Haun OwensFeature, West Knox

Misty Mills has been a popular host on Jewelry Television (JTV) for two decades, and there are plenty of viewers who have come to think of the friendly Texas native as family. Now she has a place where she can treat everyone like family and feed them well, too.

Last fall, Mills opened Merelli’s Italian Cuisine in Bearden behind Backdoor Tavern, just north of Kingston Pike on Chambliss Avenue. The restaurant, which is open every day except Sunday, recently expanded its hours to include lunch.

Mills does nine shows a week at JTV, three of them on Friday, which is the only day the restaurant is open that she’s not there.

“I’m pretty much burning the candle at both ends right now,” she says, but she loves it. “I want to be there to greet people and thank them.”

Mills, who is in her early 40s, was bitten by the restaurant bug early. Her dad had a doughnut shop franchise in Texas, and she partnered with him in business for a couple of years right after high school.

The idea for an Italian restaurant popped into her head as soon as she saw the space Merelli’s occupies. The restaurant was originally built as a shopping center/antique mall and for years was a Mexican restaurant and bar. Now it has the feel of an Italian villa.

“I saw that building, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Knoxville has nothing like this,’” Mills says.

There is open area seating, bar seating, four private dining rooms and a banquet room. There is also dining on the courtyard patio and music most Friday and Saturday nights.

The menu focuses on Italian specialties, including seafood and pasta, along with sandwiches and salads at lunch. Lasagna, meatballs, cheesecake and other favorites are made from scratch, and local purveyors are used whenever possible. In July, Merelli’s is introducing a revised menu, with some customer-requested dishes and a greater variety of price points.

Amy Carpenter is the chef, supported by Joe Pereyo in the kitchen. Fabritzzio Ricci, whose wife, Robin, helps out as a server, is the general manager.

From the hosts to the servers to the back of the house, Mills says her staff is a dream team.

“It’s so awesome to have people who support you like this,” Mills says. “I believe God puts people in your life for a reason.”

Her start at JTV had its own bit of serendipity. Mills was moving back to Tennessee from Texas, and her mom worked for what was then called America’s Collectibles Network. Mills became one of the company’s original customer service reps. She went to network co-founder Bob Hall and asked if she could add an on-air stint hosting a show on Beanie Babies. It debuted in June 1997. Within a month or so, she was selling fine jewelry.

Audiences have heard her talk about her family (her son, now 21, is a nursing student), her faith and what she likes to do for fun. They follow her avidly on social media. People feel like they know her, and for the most part, they do.

“I’m me wherever I’m at,” Mills says. “I’m not fake.”

She says two women who had been customers of hers for at JTV for 20 years flew in from New York just to eat at the restaurant. She is pleased to have a cadre of regulars, many of whom enjoy hanging out with Mills and her staff as much as they enjoy the food.

“I want people to come in and get off their cell phones. You don’t see just the tops of people’s heads in here,” Mills says. “Our lives are so fasted-paced, we lose that human connection. This is a place to decompress. I want this to be a place that people enjoy coming to.”

Merelli’s is at 4884 Chambliss Avenue. Info: www.merellis.com

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