Cafe Fon-tastic: Great Italian food in Cordova

Cafe Fontana, a new Italian restaurant, has taken up residence in the historic Farley House in Cordova.

Photo by Kyle Kurlick // Buy this photo

Cafe Fontana, a new Italian restaurant, has taken up residence in the historic Farley House in Cordova.

The torta di formaggio is Cafe Fontana's signature appetizer: sun-dried tomatoes, basil pesto and mascarpone cheese. (Photos by Kyle Kurlick/Special to the Commercial Appeal)

Photo by Kyle Kurlick

The torta di formaggio is Cafe Fontana's signature appetizer: sun-dried tomatoes, basil pesto and mascarpone cheese. (Photos by Kyle Kurlick/Special to the Commercial Appeal)

The superb grouper al forno from Cafe Fontana features an oregano bread crumb crust with tapenade served over grits and broccolini.

Photo by Kyle Kurlick

The superb grouper al forno from Cafe Fontana features an oregano bread crumb crust with tapenade served over grits and broccolini.

Marine Christopher delivers lunch to patrons at Cafe Fontana in Cordova.

Photo by Kyle Kurlick

Marine Christopher delivers lunch to patrons at Cafe Fontana in Cordova.

The chicken pesto sandwich from Cafe Fontana features a pesto dressing on a ciabatta roll served with the cafe's hand-cut french fries.

Photo by Kyle Kurlick

The chicken pesto sandwich from Cafe Fontana features a pesto dressing on a ciabatta roll served with the cafe's hand-cut french fries.

On a recent visit to Cafe Fontana, we were faced with an odd dilemma for December: Should we eat inside or out? Sure, it was unseasonably warm, but it was more than the 70 degrees that tempted us. The soothing water play in the large fountain beckoned us to take a seat on the pretty brick patio, but the threat of water from the gray sky finally propelled us up a few stairs and inside the Farley House in old Cordova.

It was our third trip, and we'll go back. Cafe Fontana is off the beaten path (unless Macon Road is your path), but worth the trip.

Meals begin with a basket of fresh bread served with a spread made from white beans pureed with olive oil and garlic and a whole head of roasted garlic. The latter, cooked until dark, sweet and buttery, is absurdly good. The cloves pop easily from the head; spread them on the warm bread and top it — perhaps — with a sprinkle of salt.

We ordered two appetizers at lunch, before we knew how generous are the portions at Cafe Fontana. The calamari was excellent, fried crisp and thoroughly devoid of chewiness. It was served with both a housemade marinara and a sprightly mustard sauce, and recommended without reservation. Still, the torta di formaggio is the appetizer.

It's simple enough: a thin layer of sun-dried tomatoes and one of basil pesto, spread between layers of mascarpone cheese. This bears little resemblance to the cream cheese tortes you see on party buffets. Mascarpone is a much lighter, more delicate cheese than cream cheese, without the latter's tang. The torta is creamy and lush, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and served with hearty pieces of toast and fat red grapes.

The sole disappointment at Cafe Fontana was the herb roasted pork sandwich at lunch, and it was only that the pork was on the bland side. It was served in big, pulled pieces, and it was tender. It just didn't have much flavor, particularly when compared to the other dishes. The french fries that came with it were so good that I ordered them again for brunch. They're hand-cut, thin, fried crisp and slightly dark, topped with kosher salt and served piping hot.

Grouper al forno (oven baked) was superb. The fillet was coated with lemony, buttery focaccia crumbs and served over a sturdy bed of thick stone-ground grits and sautéed chard and broccolini. The portion was almost laughably large for lunch; the server explained that it was almost the size of a dinner serving, but frankly, it would be considered generous for dinner.

Good food and plenty of it — not much to complain about. The same held true at dinner and at brunch, served only on Sundays.

Pastas are available in two sizes, and we chose two — the penne Bolognese and sea scallops over angel hair for one meal. While the Bolognese was a thick, flavorful sauce that contained plenty of meat, I'd love to see chef/owner Thomas Schranz prepare a more authentic Italian version of the sauce, one with fewer tomatoes.

The scallops were excellent, seared on the top and bottom and tender inside. The pasta was simple and delicious: a bit of pesto and olive oil and a generous serving of broccolini.

Chicken piccata was as good as it gets. Two small, exceptionally tender chicken breasts were served in a puddle of a lemon butter sauce, each breast topped with a lemon round and a generous serving of capers.

Desserts are all made in-house. Our favorite was the espresso flan. The earthy coffee was a lovely complement to the delicate custard surrounded by the thin caramel sauce. Whipped cream on top (it's served on all desserts, the server told us) was unnecessary, but good.

At brunch, don't miss the antipasto pie. We almost did, but we added it to our order when we saw it on another table. Think muffuletta, sans olive salad and with the addition of pesto, and that'll get you close.

Layers of ham, salami, provolone cheese and pesto (and maybe even spinach) are stacked between two crusts, baked until warmed through and the cheese melts. It's served in a generous wedge, with a choice of salad or home fries. Eggs Benedict are very good, served on toasted bread with spinach and a lively Hollandaise.

Schranz, formerly of La Tourelle and Café 1912, and his wife, Valerie, opened the restaurant in July; she takes care of the front of the house, and he's in the kitchen. Cafe Fontana is in capable hands — the food is excellent, the prices reasonable, and the restaurant warm and inviting.

Cafe Fontana

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 8556 Macon Road in Cordova

Telephone: 901-529-7526.

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, lunch is served 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Saturday dinner is served 5-10 p.m. Sunday brunch is served 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Reviewer’s choice: Torta di formaggio ($8); calamari ($9); grouper al forno ($16 lunch, $25 dinner); chicken piccata ($12 lunch, $19 dinner); sea scallop pasta ($14 for small, $22 for large)

Alcohol: Wine and beer. Simple but nice wine list, with selections available for $6.50 by the glass or $24 by the bottle, and other bottles available for $29. House wine is $4.50 per glass.

Star Ratings

Poor: Zero stars

Good: One star

Very Good: Two stars

Excellent: Three stars

Extraordinary: Four stars

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