Dining Review: A welcome taste of Italian in Cooper-Young

Roasted Eggplant Ravioli Arrabbiata boasts a spicy tomato sauce, crumbled goat cheese and slivered almonds at Cortona in Cooper-Young.

Photo by Nikki Boertman // Buy this photo

Roasted Eggplant Ravioli Arrabbiata boasts a spicy tomato sauce, crumbled goat cheese and slivered almonds at Cortona in Cooper-Young.

The general intersection of Cooper and Young is a culinary cluster, and in the best way. Throw a stone and you could hit a plate of sea bass, a pitcher of margaritas, a California roll, a bowl of Low Country shrimp and grits, even vegetarian fare, hand-cut fries and lattés.

With the opening of Cortona Contemporary Italian, you can add Italian food to the hit list.

A welcome addition it is, too. The large space is airy and light, thanks to the big windows all around, but the bustling crowd at night fills it with the happy sound of people enjoying a meal -- glasses clinking, laughter, chatter -- and that low, pleasant buzz that makes a restaurant come alive.

Chicken Piccata with asparagus risotto and fresh tomatoes at Cortona Contemporary Italian restaurant.

Photo by Nikki Boertman

Chicken Piccata with asparagus risotto and fresh tomatoes at Cortona Contemporary Italian restaurant.

Jennifer Hendrix and Robert Whitehead spend a recent evening on the patio at Cortona in Cooper-Young.

Photo by Nikki Boertman

Jennifer Hendrix and Robert Whitehead spend a recent evening on the patio at Cortona in Cooper-Young.

The lunch crowd is something of a different story. In fact, we were the lunch crowd, sole diners on a recent Friday, and the only explanation I can offer is that people must not know that lunch is served on Fridays and weekends.

Our server convinced us to try the calamari, insistent that it was the best in town. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the best. The breading was light enough, and both the marinara and the aioli sauces were good, but the calamari was a bit rubbery. I've tasted plenty that would bounce, and certainly this wasn't in that category -- but it could have been more tender.

The Eggs Cortona, however, couldn't have been better. It's the restaurant's take on Eggs Benedict, and it's a superior dish to the original.

A lightly toasted square of ciabatta is topped with a superbly tart and lush Hollandaise, followed by two poached eggs, a generous helping of crisp, savory prosciutto, more Hollandaise and two spears of lightly grilled asparagus.

Ah, the salty ham against the lemony sauce, pulled together by the poached eggs, which were cooked until the whites were set and the yolks just between slightly runny and soft-set: Divine.

We also ordered the Campannia pizza, topped with escarole, sausage, olives, capers, garlic, olive oil and mozzarella.

The bitter green, used sparingly, was a surprise and a lovely contrast to the piquant olives and capers.

The crust was a point of dispute. My friend thought it was excellent, but I found it slightly underdone. There wasn't a brown spot to be found on the bottom or at the edge, and while it wasn't soggy -- not at all -- it just missed being underdone. The toppings were perfectly cooked, but the crust could've used a little more heat. A tad.

Despite the minor quibbles, I came away with a favorable impression of lunch and called later, I'm glad to say, for reservations for Saturday night. Without them, we would've been waiting 45 minutes.

Cortona offers about a half-dozen specialty cocktails, including the tart and refreshing Tuscan Sunset made with vodka, limoncello, triple sec, Campari and sour mix. A generous glass began a meal that generally made the cut in all counts but one, which I'll come back to.

The bruschetta appetizer brings six toasts with three toppings: A tomato and basil relish; goat cheese and diced red pepper; and a thin smear of a bold tapenade of finely pulverized olives kissed with anchovies. All were good, served on house-made toasts; the latter was the best of the lot.

Chicken piccata is a good measure of whether an Italian restaurant will generally please you. It's a simple dish to make at home, and cooks have their favorite recipes that they have most likely refined over the years. My (fallible, I admit) rule is that if the piccata reminds me of home, I'll probably like the rest of the menu.

The rule held at Cortona. The chicken was pounded, sautéed and served with a deep but lively sauce of pan juices deglazed with wine, and lemon and capers. The risotto with tender-crisp bits of asparagus was creamy and soft, not at all mushy. It was our favorite dish, though the Roasted Eggplant Ravioli Arrabbiata was very good.

Arrabbiata -- angry -- means the sauce is spicy, and Cortona's version was balanced with a bit of sweetness, yet it was hearty and the heat level high enough to satisfy most palates; red pepper is available to kick it up. The slivered almonds added crunch to an otherwise soft dish, packing a big punch for such a simple touch.

Cortona suffers in one way, and it's service. The servers are friendly and welcoming, but some training is in order. At dinner, our silverware was never cleared, plates were left to linger far too long, we weren't told the price of the specials (which turned out to be about 50 percent higher than the entrees), and after our first cocktail, we were never asked if we wanted another or even if we wanted wine with our dinner.

Cortona is not fine dining, and the prices reflect that, yet the quality of the food and the pleasant surroundings beg for more professional service.

-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223

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Cortona Contemporary Italian

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 948 S. Cooper.

Telephone: (901) 729-0101.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday.

Reviewer's choices: Bruschetta Miste ($9); Eggs Cortona ($9); Campannia pizza ($14); Chicken Piccata ($16); Roasted Eggplant Ravioli Arrabbiata ($14).

Alcohol: Full bar. Try the Tuscan Sunset ($8).

Star Ratings

Poor: Zero stars

Good: One star

Very Good: Two stars

Excellent: Three stars

Extraordinary: Four stars

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Comments » 4

Gilmem writes:

More professional service is right. I have never had such bad service in a restaurant. Our waitress was insanly rude and it took an hour and 20 minutes for our mediocre food to arrive. I hate to bad mouth a new restaurant, but this place was a disaster.

gingerspickler writes:

The first time I had the calamari at Cortona, it WAS one of the best examples of the dish I'd ever had. The second time, I'm with you -- it was a tad rubbery. Not bad, but not the best either. All three of the entrees I've sampled there have been great. Glad to have yet another great dining option in my neighborhood!

MemphisChicks writes:

As a fine dining restaurant GM, I can't stand critics and I absolutely HATE armchair critics that have never worked in the restaurant industry and try to critique restaurants because they think it's an "easy" job. There's no one I hate more, seriously. You a--holes don't know hard work.

Now that I got that out of my system, the service at Cortona was really poor. The wise-cracking server was funny at first, but towards the end of dinner I wanted him to run out into traffic.

Cats_fan writes:

NOT a FAN. It has earned my "Three strikes-You're Out" rating. I wish you good luck.

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