Although I’ve written extensively about restaurants, visiting a new one still excites me, especially a restaurant such as Pasta Italia, which had been recommended by a number of people who know and appreciate good food. My enthusiasm for a weekend dinner escalated after calling to check on the restaurant’s policy for bringing wine. “We are not charging corkage fees on Fridays and Saturdays as a summer special,” explained the host on the phone.
Pumped up even more and toting several bottles of our favorite wines, five of us drove to Cordova, amazed to see a pair of Holsteins grazing near the restaurant on Macon Station Road and charmed when a host held open the restaurant door as soon as we piled out of the Honda. Whisked to our table, set for fine dining, we settled in, humming along to the accordion player’s gentle rendition of a Dean Martin classic.
Nearby, our server was ready with an impressive wheel of Grana Padano, a hard milk cheese imported from Italy. He carved big chunks and placed them on our bread plates. Seamlessly, a warm and fragrant loaf of house-made focaccia also arrived, so messy with garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan that we needed to wipe our fingers before toasting to our meal to come.
Customers who are familiar with Chef Michele D’Oto’s refined seafood plates and pasta dishes probably also know the restaurant’s back story. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, D’Oto relocated his restaurant from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Collierville’s town square, opening Pasta Italia with partner and general manager Laura Derrick in 2006. The couple moved briefly to Chattanooga, but returned last year to start the Cordova restaurant, which duplicates much of the Collierville ambience despite its more prosaic setting.
Once inside, we quickly forgot about Pasta Italia’s strip center location. Burnt-gold wall coverings and a table cornucopia of fresh fruit, long stem roses, and apricot-colored gladioli certainly helped, as did the restaurant’s intimate seating for about 45 people. Our table certainly stayed in a sprightly mood as we decided on three appetizers to share: a meat antipasto with prosciutto, coppa, and Felino salami, a delicate pork salami from D’Oto’s native region of Italy; a flavorful fennel and orange salad, julienned with a little celery root and served on arugula; and an antipasti di mare, one of the most captivating appetizers I have ever ordered.
After a moment of admiration, it was difficult for everyone not to simultaneously grab from the over-sized square plate. First, aromatic whiffs of lemon and vinegar marinade and a pretty combination of green leaf lettuce, carrot curlicues, and D’Oto’s signature rose-colored baby orchid. Next, a mountain of scallops, calamari, mussels, crab meat, and baby clams waiting patiently to be savored like little open books. And finally, the glory of the plate we saved for last: grilled colossal shrimps in the shell, sliced so their tails cross in a luscious and prayerful ode to Aphrodite.
An even larger version of this seafood combination also comes over linguini, an entrée ordered by one of our party. The seafood was sautéed in white wine, olive oil, and lemon juice and was as scrumptious as the marinated salad, but the duplication of seafood was disappointing. We wondered why our server hadn’t mentioned the similar ingredients.
Throughout dinner, we encountered similar small problems that could have been fixed with more attentive service. My husband, for instance, ordered veal scaloppini, assuming the dish would be made in the typical way. Instead, he was served five lollipop chops with prosciutto, sage, and Fontina cheese, a preparation I said far surpassed the more pedestrian version, but one he wasn’t expecting. Another friend ordered the chef’s special: a butterfish with brown sage butter. When the plate arrived, we were startled that our server hadn’t steered a 6-foot-tall man in a more plentiful direction. The three small medallions of fish, while delicious, seemed like a $42 throwback to sparse nouvelle cuisine.
To be fair, we only visited Pasta Italia once, but I mention these problems so first-time customers, who can easily spend $100 each, can ask the right questions and fully appreciate what D’Oto does so gracefully: combine crisp and clean flavors in elegant ways. Nuanced with artful plates and the longstanding traditions of Italian cooking, D’Oto energizes his menu with studied details and fresh ingredients, such as a side of roasted endive, radicchio, and a fat slice of tomato.
D’Oto’s pastas are equally good because the gnocchi, cannelloni, and ravioli of the day are expertly made in-house with precision and a delicate hand. So are the restaurant’s desserts, which include a whimsical millefoglie of phyllo dough, berry compote, zabaione cream, powdered sugar, and a touch of Marsala wine that sits on the plate like an enchanted house for garden fairies. The dessert, along with many dishes at Pasta Italia, is friendly, but bewitching, much like Chef D’Oto himself, who visits each table after dinner and thanks the ladies with a kiss on the hand.
8130 Macon Station, Cordova
Food: Four stars
Service: Two stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Part of my pleasure in this lovely pairing is how it arrives at the table compliments of the chef. But who can’t embrace finely textured hard cheese invented by twelfth-century monks and served alongside focaccia with herbs and tomatoes baked on top?
So sensual you might blush a little before digging in, this opulent plate includes a baby orchid ascending from a bounty of shellfish marinated for a day or two in vinegar, lemon juice, fresh parsley, and chopped carrots, celery, peppers, and onion.
Order rosette al forno as an entrée if you dare, but remember: The dish is rich and beautiful, layering prosciutto, fontina, and mascarpone inside pasta hand-rolled like miniature cinnamon buns and plated with a perfect Béchamel sauce.