Well. Sometimes you just shake your head, shrug your shoulders, and say that one word:
That's what I said after my recent experiences at The Villa, the new Italian restaurant in the former Le Chardonnay. The restaurant is still owned by Bill Baker, who should be credited with restructuring so that his chef, Steven Robilio, could prepare his family recipes for the paying public. The food is good, and some of it is excellent.
Brief history: Le Chardonnay opened in Palm Court next to the former T.G.I. Friday's in 1983. It was a popular spot, known for its wide selection of wines by the glass and a wider selection by the bottle. When its lease on the south side of Overton Square was not renewed, Baker moved both Le Chardonnay and Bayou Bar & Grill across the street, to the building that has housed untold restaurants over the years. Square Foods also gave it a good go in the building, but it seems that now, with Bayou occupying one side and The Villa on the other, that there's a permanent resident.
Let's hope so. It's good stuff.
At The Villa, Robilio's pizzas range from the meaty to the vegetarian, and we'll start with the latter. It's easy to go
vegetarian with pizza, and plenty of restaurants do it well.
But there's a new pizza in town, and I say someone might have to slip off the top-five list to make room for it. It's loaded with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red onion, roasted mushrooms, mozzarella and fontina cheeses. And I love fontina -- love it! It's an excellent melting cheese and has so much more flavor than mozzarella. It comes through, and it is used on all pizzas except the Margherita and the Shrimp Bianca.
The wood-fired oven produces an excellent thin crust. It's cracker-y on the edges, and holds up to the generous toppings in the middle.
On our first visit, we skipped the pizzas and went with pasta entrees. I heard a table of women behind us talk about a pizza. So did the server, who asked one diner if she wanted another one. It was buy-one-get-one-free, he said, so why not take it home? (Wednesdays all day, dine-in only, but also every night after 10 p.m. Late-night snack!)
The same server went out of his way to check on us several times, even though we were already in the hands of a capable server. He was friendly, efficient and helpful, too. At lunch, though, we had one of the more peculiar experiences I have encountered with an overly friendly server, who shared multiple life experiences in a stream-of-consciousness way that didn't even end as we tried to eat our food.
That's "well" No. 1. Toned down a few levels, it would have been funny -- and the absurdity of it made it pretty humorous, anyway. But the fact is, diners need to be left alone to enjoy their meals and conversation with each other. A definite distraction from the meal.
The second "well" concerns the music. At dinner, we ate good Italian food to to the loud tunes of AC/DC, Molly Hatchet and -- I think -- Ozzy Osbourne. It was perplexing to me, but distracting enough to my husband that he said he won't return if the music is the same.
I will (though I might ask that the music be adjusted if I'm not reviewing; when working, I just go with the flow and report on it), because I like the food and the prices.
Pastas are $6 or $11, depending on serving size. Although I couldn't taste anchovy in the Pasta Puttanesca, and the black olives appeared to be canned, it was still a very flavorful dish. The penne was tossed in a pomodoro sauce (a simple tomato sauce that we also had with good toasted ravioli) full of capers. A few mushrooms were added for texture, and it all worked even if it wasn't the traditional puttanesca.
The meat sauce, or Bolognese, was indeed meaty. It was hearty, garlicky and filling -- a good example of a "gravy."
The Chicken Marsala and Veal Piccata were also nice. I did add a squeeze of lemon to my piccata -- a personal preference only. The sauce was excellent: buttery, with a hint of wine and a nice helping of capers to liven it up. The veal was OK -- tender and tasty enough, though next time I plan to have my piccata with chicken instead.
The chef did a very nice job with the Chicken Marsala. A boneless breast can be a brutally bland piece of meat, but this was tender and succulent throughout. The sauce was deep but light, full of the flavor of the Marsala wine and earthy with mushrooms. Delicious.
To close, let me make note of the carne, or meat, pizza. Topped with Italian sausage and chunks, not slices, of pepperoni and salami, it's very good and a solid fix for a meat lover. A great Wednesday lunch or dinner would be carne pizza and one vegetarian pizza with one pizza-lovin' friend who also likes a bargain. And while all entrees are advertised as $20 or under, the most expensive item on the present menu is $16.
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 2094 Madison
Telephone: (901) 725-1375
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner starts at 4 p.m. daily
Reviewer's choices: Vegetarian Pizza ($9); Carne Pizza ($12); Pasta Puttanesca ($6 or $12); Veal Piccata ($16); Chicken Marsala ($14).
Alcohol: Full bar
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars