Pasta Italia, the northern Italian restaurant that opened on Collierville's town square in April 2006, is owned and operated by Michele D'Oto, a native of Modena, Italy. His original Pasta Italia was in Biloxi, that is, until hurricane Katrina destroyed both the restaurant and the D'Oto family's home. They evacuated to Collierville, where his brother-in-law lives, and D'Oto worked at Fino Villa as general manager before deciding to open his own place. With Pasta Italia up and running, he's about to open Caffe Italia, a wine bar that will feature a more casual menu.
Pasta Italia is a small, lovely restaurant, with its copper-colored pressed tin ceiling, walls finished in golden-chartreuse tones, and exposed brick. At night the lighting imparts a soft, intimate glow, but the restaurant still looks great during the day, thanks to the natural lighting provided by a large skylight.
Our first visit was a leisurely dinner. (This is not the place to dine when you have to hurry, say, to meet friends at the movies.) The meal started with bread and a generous chunk of fresh grana padano cheese from a huge wheel. We first ordered the Italian antipasto platter for four. It offered a top-quality sampling: ultra-thin slices of prosciutto and other Italian meats, wonderful roasted and marinated fresh zucchini, artichokes, and other vegetables as well as olives and fresh mozzarella on plum tomatoes. I can't remember when I've had a better antipasto platter.
We then indulged in some heavenly ravioli, created with D'Oto's beautiful house-made pasta. The oversized fontina ravioli had a silky texture and deep, sharp flavor from the cheese. The rosette al forno, considered the house specialty, went a step further, diffusing the sharp flavor of the fontina cheese with sundried tomato, proscuitto, and spinach. (The rosette was actually an amuse de bouchée from the chef.) The cannelloni al forno was filled with a luscious spinach and ricotta filling, then topped with a béchamel-tomato sauce. (Some of the pastas are available in smaller appetizer portion, not a bad idea if you're saving room for dessert.)
The most intriguing entrée was the rock salt fish: A whole snapper stuffed with herbs and chopped vegetables, encased in two layers of rock salt, then baked. (The menu describes this as an ancient Roman cooking method.) Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be watching when the waiter rolled the dome of hardened baked salt to our table, then used a hammer to get to the fish. Incredibly, the fish was not salty, but butter-tender and very moist. (The market price for the fish, which two people shared, was $72. Steep. At that price, it makes more sense to split it three or four ways.)
The beef medallions, cooked medium rare as ordered, were plump and flavorful, with a sublime truffle porcini cream sauce. The veal scaloppine was unusual in that the pounded veal chops were still on the bone. They were deliciously tender, and the accompanying sauce rich with five kinds of mushrooms, tomato, capers, and olives.
Dessert here is astonishing. The tiramisu was perfectly light and formed into an attractive shell shape on the plate: Our friend, who always orders tiramisu, thought this was the best version she'd ever had. The chocolate mousse had the texture of frosting, thick with top-quality Belgian chocolate. The zabaione (not to be confused with the wine-and-egg custard zablione) was fresh berries, cooked down to the consistency of preserves, then topped with mascarpone cheese and served in a martini glass -- delicious, and not too sweet. The best, though, was the panna cotta, which consisted of little pots of vanilla and coffee. It seemed as though it hadn't chilled long enough to acquire the characteristic gelatin texture, which actually worked in its favor. It's hard to describe what a light, silky, creamy texture this dessert has, but it was marvelous. I preferred the subtle coffee flavor to the vanilla, which I found to be too sweet.
Service was on a par with the surroundings and the food. We were well taken care of, and the meal moved at a nice pace that gave us plenty of time to enjoy everything in turn. Throughout the meal were extra touches -- the cheese, an amuse de bouchée, lemon sorbet between courses, and a mulled-wine digestif before dessert.
Our second visit was for lunch. The dinner menu was available, much of which seemed too extravagant -- no sandwiches or soups and few salads, all offerings heavier than what most diners would describe as midday fare. (The lunch menu at Caffe Italia is likely to be more along those lines.) I ordered the antipasta di mare salad, a beautiful chilled profusion of seafood: marinated squid, octopus, shrimp, scallops, and fish, as well as mussels, oysters, and clams. Every bit of it was fresh and in perfect balance with the simple marinade, served on a bed of greens. My friend had that day's special -- a sampler of four pastas served with a simple vinaigrette-dressed salad. The fontina ravioli and spinach cannelloni were as delectable as they had been at dinner. The meat cannelloni consisted of meat that was chopped and somehow fluffed, then combined with a lovely cream sauce. The vegetable lasagna had a rich béchamel filling with asparagus, spinach, tomato, and other vegetables.
Service, again, was attentive. There were fewer bells and whistles, like the mulled wine offered at dinner, clearly paced to get people back to the office in a timely fashion.
The wine list is exclusively Italian wines, 19 wines and 23 reds in the $25-65 range, a few sparkling wines and a few dessert wines. About 15 of these are available by the glass. There's also a reserve list of more expensive wines.
Pasta Italia is a gem of a restaurant. Everything we had, without exception, exemplified Italian cuisine at its best, skillfully house-made, delicious and of the finest possible quality. All of this is served in an attractive atmosphere with many thoughtful touches, from the cheese at the beginning to the mulled wine at the end. True, this restaurant is not cheap, but you absolutely get what you pay for.
For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for Pasta Italia.