The list of places to be reviewed grows every time a restaurant opens, a new chef is hired or when ownership changes. Fino's from the Hill made the list when former owner JoAnn Johnson sold it last year, but my, how time flies. Seeing that it's been 10 months since Jerry and Elizabeth Wilson purchased it, it was certainly time for a visit.
Turns out, it's just as I remember it.
The sandwiches are as good as they ever were, the close tables make for the same collegiality among diners as before, and it's still fun to go to Fino's.
On our first visit, we ordered soup despite the heat, because when the opportunity for cream of mushroom soup with spinach comes up, you take it.
Delicious soup -- but a defective delivery system. The plastic spoons have got to go. At the very, very least, the tiny spoons need to be replaced by sturdier plastic soup spoons. It was both annoying and frustrating to try to lift soup to my mouth with a tiny, flimsy spoon. It spilled. It slopped. I swore.
The soup was left half-eaten because of this, and that's a shame, because it was nice. It was rich and lush, full of big pieces of mushroom (too big for the spoon, in some cases) and bits of spinach. I didn't even reach for the pepper, which I'd typically use in a cream-based soup. On a cold day, this one will warm us up.
So will the rigatoni, though a good meat gravy is welcome any time. And a good one it is. It's thick and hearty, spicy enough (but better with a little red pepper flakes), and it sticks to the well-cooked pasta. As is often the case, the pasta was not well-drained, though, and we had to nibble around the edges to avoid a puddle of watery sauce. And again, the cheap utensils were a problem, as the large pieces of pasta fell off the tiny plastic fork again and again.
Don't even ask if the plastic knife can cut the sandwiches.
But these are easy problems to fix. Drain the pasta. Buy some cheap flatware. Problem solved and everything else is great.
There are both hot and cold sandwiches, and they are equally good. The Acquisto and the sausage sub stand out, though I'd happily order any of the ones we tried again.
The Acquisto is cold, made with ham, mortadella, salami, provel cheese (so St. Louis!) and a green olive dressing. There's nothing not to like, if you're into Italian meats. We couldn't resist making ours even better by adding a drizzle of the spicy oil that our peppers shooters were in.
Delicious. (As are the shooters, large cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto and provolone and marinated in spicy oil.)
The sausage sub is as simple as it gets: A link of sweet Italian sausage, meat sauce and Parmesan cheese tucked in a baguette. The fennel stood out in the sausage (yum), and it was an easy and neat enough sandwich to eat.
Cured meats are widely loved, as is crusty bread. The two together are a match made for wine (you can bring your own, but Fino's doesn't sell it), but the pairing can be a bit hard to eat. The bread has a thick crust, so you want to bite into it with care to keep the insides of your sandwich from getting outside it. You can do it.
But when you add a piece of meat, say prosciutto or coppa, that pulls out of the bread, you can end up with a mess.
Look around you and you'll see you're in good company. And remember that Fino's also offers soft bread, which some people prefer anyway.
(Or consider that most of the world's best sandwiches are a little messy, anyway -- some more than others. As my dining companion noted, in New Orleans the sandwich isn't considered good unless it's dripping down to your elbows.)
There's a dessert of the day, and if you're lucky enough to be there when the dense brownie topped with mascarpone is on the menu, indulge in a chocolate fix. Wilson said he wouldn't dream of removing it from the menu; in fact, he purchased one made in the shape of a Guinness glass for his groom's cake at his wedding.
It turns out that Fino's loyal, longtime customers had little to worry about, as Wilson was one himself. He kept hounding Johnson to open a location in East Memphis, and she said it was impossible to run two. Eventually she asked him if he wanted to buy the one location she had.
"If someone didn't buy it, it would've closed," said Wilson. "We couldn't let that happen."
Josh Rawlings, who has been in the kitchen for about 14 years, is still there, and Wilson still wants a Fino's out East someday.
That would be great, but please, please, please: Get some flatware for those great soups and pastas first.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Fino's from the Hill
Address: 1852 Madison (you can park in the lot of the Gilmore)
Telephone: (901) 272-3466
Hours: Lunch 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Reviewer's choices: The Acquisto (whole $7; half, $4.25); sausage sub (whole, $6; half, $3.50); panini ($4.25); pepper shooters ($1.25); brownie ($2.95)
Alcohol: Beer only. No corkage if you bring your own wine.