photography by Justin Fox Burks
Here, in a cozy, well-appointed house in the heart of old Cordova, Cafe Fontana’s chef/owner Thomas Schranz filters his earliest cooking memories through the lens of familiar Italian classics for an unforgettable dining experience.
“Twice a year my father traveled to Europe on business,” says Schranz. “When he came home my poor mom had to re-create what he had in Paris and Monaco. She would try to source out the little snail shells and things like that. If you saw Mad Men with the little martini parties and the hors d’oeuvres, that was my parents. And that was us, shuffled off to the basement, trying to sneak a snail or something.”
A Jersey boy reared on mid-century Continental cuisine, Schranz went to culinary school at a time when veal scaloppine was king. He remembers when New American cuisine was still called “California cuisine” and long before the current buzzwords — “sustainable” and “local” — were popping up like so many locally sourced mushrooms.
With Cafe Fontana, Schranz has proven veal scaloppine is still king. He revisits the old standard with his Veal Scaloppine Saltimbocca, a twist that incorporates delicate shavings of prosciutto and a sprinkling of sage atop tender cutlets of veal served in a pool of outrageously flavorful Madeira.
But well before you get to the veal, there are multiple pit stops to hit, each proof that Schranz is an old hand at Italian classics and that he isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel.
“They’ve been making this stuff for a long time, and there’s a reason for that,” he says. “We just try to do old school cuisine really well and slightly new.”
To that end, Schranz has filled his menu with expertly executed items like his calimari fritti, crispy fried, meaty, but not chewy, paired with a light mustardy mayo and an on-point, tangy, and buttery marinara that is far more than the dipping sauce afterthought one usually expects.
The torta di formaggio — Schranz’s play on the cheese ball of those mid-century martini parties — layers delicate, buttery mascarpone with pesto and sundried tomatoes and is served with slices of crusty bread and cold, crispy plump grapes. My one complaint would be the ratio of cheese to bread, but the gratis bread basket followed hot on the heels of our starters, so we were quickly inundated with pane.
A word on the bread basket: It comes with an entire head of roasted garlic, cooked through until soft and spreadable, and served alongside a white bean and black olive puree. This preprandial lagniappe was, as far as complimentary bread goes, a cut above and a testament to Schranz’ attention to every last detail. The garlic was mellow — toasted through, not burnt — while the slightly more salty olive puree served as a nice foil.
Pizzas and pastas are next on the menu, and come via limited, thoughtful selections. We anticipated the waiter would recommend the Tre Carne pizza, it being the more expensive pizza and this being a town where meat is practically a prerequisite, but we were pleasantly surprised when he recommended instead the Margherita.
We were even more pleasantly surprised when the pizza arrived with its bubbly, browned crust and bright circles of fresh-cut mozzarella. Schranz uses a Napoli-style crust, which is crispy and hearty on the outside, but is soft, “almost wet” in the middle, where the buttery plum tomatoes, mozzarella, and roasted garlic meet in an eat-with-your-fork slice of heaven.
The Spaghetti Bucanera, a house specialty that comes in a half or full order, was served piping hot and full of clams, shrimp, and calimari, as well as a rich, brothy tomato sauce spiked with chilis.
As for entrees, the secondi portion of the menu proffers an excellent selection of meat and fish, including another house specialty, the shrimp and grits. Served on a bed of cheesy polenta, the shrimp was cooked perfectly and the fennel-rich Italian sausage and peppers rounded out this Southern classic. But the veal scaloppine, served with a side of pasta marinara, was still the clear winner, and the pan-roasted pork chop’s perfect crispy brown crust laced with balsamic onions and gorgonzola mashed potatoes came in a close second.
Capping off the evening with a round of desserts, our table fell into the debate of whose was best, each of us, of course, defending our own. The espresso flan plied the milky sweetness of custard with a smooth, slightly bitter espresso reduction for a sophisticated final note. Tom’s Boston cream was more of a crowd-pleaser, its deconstructed cream pie makings laid out in equal proportions chocolate, cream, and moist lemon cake. The macadamia nut tart was an elevated take on Karo pecan pie, with a slightly more temperate sweetness and a golden nuttiness, crowned in a very clearly homemade fresh whipped cream.
Dinner was picturesque next to a charming, barely aglow fireplace and set to the soft music of 1940s jazz and swing crooners. Sunday brunch was equally delightful, and not to be missed.
First of all, boozy brunchers beware: Cafe Fontana is still working on its liquor license, so only beer, wine, mimosas, and bellinis are available for now. If you can brace yourself for brunch without a Bloody Mary, you’ll be smart to order the antipasto pie, a Cafe Fontana original, which layers fresh Italian ham and cheeses with a blend of tomatoes and greens, inside a light pizza crust for a melted version of an antipasto plate. The poached eggs Benedict is one of the best renditions I’ve tasted in a while, with a buoyant Hollandaise that feels rich, but not heavy.
“It’s the poaching water,” says Schranz. “You have to have the right blend of yolks and oil, but you use a little bit of the poaching water to break down the yolks and lighten up the color and the texture. Then fresh lemons. It’s the combination of the right ingredients in the right quantities.”
After these hefty portions, make room for a pair of cannoli, handled marvelously here with fresh, whipped ricotta and just the right amount of cinnamon, encased in a crispy dough that cracks when you eat it, spilling the sweet cream filling.
In the end, perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all will be your check, as the quality and quantity of food belie Cafe Fontana’s extremely reasonable prices. Schranz has made a point of keeping pretension out, and a budget-friendly dining experience in.
“We want this place to feel warm, inviting, and comfortable,” he says. “We didn’t want to seem more important than the customers.”
Hannah Sayle is a staff writer for The Memphis Flyer, writes its “Food News” column, and is a regular contributor to the Hungry Memphis blog.