The economy and gasoline prices being what they are, you're probably less likely to drive 20 miles from Memphis to get pizza or a sandwich than you were even just last year. But Buon Cibo, a local-food-movement oasis in Hernando run by former Interim Restaurant chef Josh Belenchia and his wife, Katie, is serving pizza and sandwiches that make the trip worthwhile. And if you live in DeSoto County, take advantage of this culinary asset in your backyard.
Buon Cibo -- it means "good food" in Italian -- takes its stand for local produce and food integrity less than a mile from Interstate 55's Exit 280, in the Highland Court Shopping Center across the road from Walmart and Taco Bell. The interstate-big-box-fast-food
culture fades into the background at the massive chalkboard menu by the front door here. The café is confident with fresh vegetables, and comfortable with the chemistry of combining ingredients.
Simple, homely dishes such as coleslaw and chicken noodle soup are exalted by the judicious use of hot pepper. The first sip of the café's coconut chicken noodle soup -- a broth lightened by coconut milk and sprinkled with slivers of carrots, onions, parsley and pasta, all with a peppery edge -- convinces you that there is an intuitive artist of flavors at the stove, who uses spice to entice rather than assault the diner.
It's a clean, open, easy-to-like space with polished concrete floors, avocado-colored walls and sturdy booths. A collection of Lamar Sorrento's deliberately naive paintings of Wilco, Radiohead and Johnny Cash on the wall tell you what to expect on the Buon Cibo playlist.
You order and pay at the front counter before you sit down, and your food is delivered by a cheerful employee. It's an easy system -- when you're done eating and ready to leave, you get up and walk.
Back to that coleslaw: It's satisfyingly crunchy, with a nicely balanced vinegar dressing flaked with red peppers, a treat that came beside the excellent meat loaf sandwich.
Buon Cibo's meat comes from the Heritage Farmworks organic farm and wildlife refuge in Heber Springs, Ark. (For a definition of the word "bucolic," look at the pictures of peaceful cows grazing on grassy hillsides on the farm's website, heritagefarmworks.com; especially reassuring is the description of their hog-raising practices.) The seasoned meat loaf is like a French country terrine, densely packed, with the subtle influence of minced carrots and onions, pepper of course, and a crusty edge baked brown-black. The massive slab came on two slices of airy sourdough bread, with a creamy aioli, the garlic nicely tamed by roasting.
From the list of pressed sandwiches, we chose the Italian, anchored by a mildly spiced Italian sausage, with shavings of ham and salami and a kalamata olive tapenade, the hefty portions compressed in a well-knit package.
This ability to tie disparate ingredients into one gratifying whole is a talent the Belenchias apply to their pizzas as well. We tried two of the seven, named for Mississippi cities. The Nesbit was described as a meat-heavy "killer," and there was a reckless quantity of sausage, ham, bacon and pepperoni, deftly capped with melted cheddar, so well integrated it reminded you that you were, in fact, eating a piece of pie.
We balanced the heavy Nesbit by ordering the Starkville, a frothy combination of mushrooms and mozzarella piled with arugula and sprinkled with a sweet, dark balsamic reduction. "The only thing this pizza needs is more cowbell," the menu jokes. The crusts are thin, but pliable, not of the annoying, cracker-like variety.
The Buon Cibo salad also features arugula -- the small $4 salad brought almost as much arugula as you buy for that amount at the Downtown Farmers Market. Arugula, pear and blue cheese is such a harmonious trio that it's become almost as ubiquitous as Greek and Caesar salads on restaurant menus. This version is sweetened with candied pecans as well as a balsamic vinaigrette.
This is one of those excellent places where things that are good are also good for you. Though "mama's made-from-scratch" pies may just be the former. We had the French coconut, a dreamy concoction of eggs, sugar and butter that more than justifies following through on a whim to dash down the interstate.
-- Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Address: 2631 McIngvale Road, Hernando.
Telephone: (662) 469-9481
Hours: Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Coconut chicken noodle soup, ($3, $5); Meat loaf sandwich ($8); Starkville ($8) and Nesbit ($8.50) pizzas; French coconut pie ($3.50).
Alcohol: Beer; if you bring your own wine, there's no corkage fee.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars