A New Day

Chef David Cleveland brightens up a corner with some Tuscan sun.

Justin Fox Burks

The first time I ate at Cortona Contemporary Italian in Cooper-Young, I was pleased to see a table of six or seven lively people on the restaurant’s sidewalk deck. Near the bar, a dad and his two boys ate pizza at a high table, and in the dining room — painted taupe and tangerine — servers were busy with a Wednesday-night crowd of mostly couples.

I’d intentionally put off visiting Cortona, which opened in March, because restaurants tend to come and go on this northeast corner of Cooper and Young. “Was it Dish that had the mattresses, or Melange?” we asked as we sat down, sorting through restaurant names.

“There have been a lot of restaurants before us,” agreed hostess Cortney Viglietti, a development associate for ArtsMemphis who is moonlighting at night to help her fiancé, Cortona’s chef and owner David Campbell. “But this one is here to stay. I guarantee it.”

I found out later that more than a dozen restaurants have occupied this high-profile space, which is why Tamara Cook, executive director of the Cooper-Young Business Association, called in a little heavenly help from Father Val Handwerker at Immaculate Conception. “He came over and blessed Cortona with lots of holy water,” Cook said, laughing. “I thought it might be a good idea to clean out some karma.”

These days, a new mojo is definitely at work thanks to Father Val and the culinary aplomb of Cleveland, who credits the restaurant’s name and the menu’s influences to the Tuscany hill town of Cortona, where he spent two years cooking after a studies-abroad program with the University of Georgia. Atlanta-born, Cleveland cooked in his home town for about six years before coming to Memphis for a job at Chez Philippe and a 10-year stint with the Grisanti family.

At Cortona, Cleveland’s experience in traditional cooking lays the groundwork for his more contemporary interpretation of Italian classics. Yes, there are pizzas and homemade pastas. But overall, both the lunch and dinner menus have a lighter touch, meaning more fish and fresh vegetables and fewer heavy sauces.

At Cortona, Cleveland’s experience in traditional cooking lays the groundwork for his more contemporary interpretation of Italian classics. Yes, there are pizzas and homemade pastas. But overall, the lunch and dinner menus have a lighter touch, meaning more fish and fresh vegetables and fewer heavy sauces.

For dinner, I started with Cleveland’s signature mushroom torta, a good choice if, like me, you waver between ordering an appetizer or a salad. The torta was both: mixed greens tossed with a lemony vinaigrette and a slice of mushroom pie plated with pin-curve drizzles of dark chocolate. Made with just enough egg and cream to bind it all together, the shitake and portabello pie was so fragrant I could smell a hint of thyme.

My husband ordered beef skewers with tomato fresco, which translated into grilled kabobs of red and green peppers, sweet onions, and chunks of beef from the end pieces of Cortona’s hand-cut ribeyes. We were impressed with the tenderness of the beef and the fresh tomato salsa served alongside.

For our entrees, we both chose pasta: meat lasagna for me (a vegetarian version is also available) and roasted chicken and asparagus ravioli for my husband. Except for penne and angel hair, all the pastas at Cortona are house-made. Lasagna noodles are hand-cut from pasta sheets, creating soft and satisfying building blocks for a piping-hot mix of fresh herbs, meat sauce, and a creamy blend of Fontina and whole-milk mozzarella. The ravioli were equally delicious, wrapped in a lightweight coat of walnut-cream sauce and garnished with  pesto, pine nuts, and shaved Reggianno cheese.

When we returned a week or so later for lunch (served Friday through Sunday), we were happy to see that much of the evening menu is duplicated for midday, with Cortona’s four dinner entrees switched out for sandwiches. My husband went immediately for the meatball melt, a man-sized combination of meatballs, sauce, and sautéed peppers and onions iced with a thick layer of melted mozzarella. It only took one bite to send him back to third grade in New York when his mom occasionally surprised him at lunch with a meatball sub. (These were, simply put, the best days ever.)

While you can build your own pizza from almost 30 different toppings, I opted for a menu combination called crudo. At Cortona, the pizza dough is made with imported Italian flour for a thin bottom layer that falls somewhere between a crispy tortilla and a puff pastry. I loved how the dough’s slight buttery taste complemented the pizza’s smoked cheese and trio of uncooked toppings: prosciutto, sweet tomatoes, and handfuls of fresh arugula.

While my pizza was an appreciated change from the typical cheese-heavy pie, I toted half of it home because in a food-ordering frenzy, we began our meal with potato-crusted mozzarella fried to a deep pumpkin color, garnished with parmesan and chopped parsley, and stacked, two by two, into a plate of happy comfort food. We ate all four.

The food at Cortona has an easy and comfortable personality. The dishes are a little like teenagers: familiar but not altogether predictable. Consider Cortona’s barbecue. Instead of pork, it’s pulled beef brisket cooked long and slow and served on Sister Schubert’s yeast rolls. The eggplant parmesan has, well, eggplant along with zucchini and goat cheese. For dessert, the restaurant’s mixed berry cobbler is dependably Southern, but Cleveland adds scoops of chocolate gelato topped with florets of whipped cream. Even the fresh bread has a tasty surprise: garlic butter whipped into a creamy and spreadable topping.

Like any new restaurant, Cortona has a few things to learn. We had to ask for bread, my friend was a little miffed that they had no chilled beer glasses, and at dinner, we were charged for an entrée we didn’t order. But these were easily remedied service problems and didn’t diminish our enthusiasm for the restaurant’s ample portions, affordable prices (appetizers, pizzas, pastas, and entrees range from $6 to $16), and spacious bar open until midnight. Considering all the pluses at Cortona, it’s easy to believe that this problematic corner at Cooper and Young may finally have found a keeper.

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