Spotlight on the Piazza

Comforting Italian favorites shine in an idyllic Collierville setting.




I took the long way around the Collierville Town Square so that I could see all of the store window displays and walk through the gazebo at twilight. Why, I wondered, have I not made the trek out here in so many years? Star of my own small-town, storybook reverie, I milled about dreamily as the streetlights flickered to life against the darkening sky. Right on the outskirts of the square proper was my destination: Café Piazza, a beacon on a hill. Pat Lucchesi opened this restaurant after selling Lucchesi's Ravioli and Pasta Company seven years ago. He will mark Café Piazza's fourth year in this Collierville location come July. Each time I visited, the restaurant was packed; the crowd — a happy mix of those participating in date-night, family-night, and girls-night-out — was in on the secret: This is the type of casually sophisticated restaurant that is a joy to find. >>>

 

Our dinner at Café Piazza could not have been more enchanting. We watched the sun set from our tiny table behind the hostess stand, candles shone from the tables, and the faint buzz of the conversation around us faded into the background as songs from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald completed the romantic picture.

We started with the artichoke dip with crostini, and while succulent, oversize arti-choke hearts were in the dip, the real star was the base of warm, creamy cheese that we spread on the crisp, olive-oil slathered bread. Maybe because it seems appropriate to splurge on meals on the weekend, or more likely, because this dip was just that rich and that amazing, we paused our previous conversation in order to discuss what made it so impressive.

The soup featured that night, a tomato and Gouda bisque, had a deep, roasted flavor, and I liked how bits of the smoky Gouda were incorporated into the soup instead of used as a slapdash finishing touch. The two salads we ordered, the wedge salad and the Insalata Piazza, also did not disappoint. I love seeing the old-fashioned wedge salad making a comeback, and its tangy dressing complemented the enormous, chilled chunk of iceberg lettuce and warm croutons made in-house.

An am I really supposed to finish this? sense of bemusement came over me as it was presented at the table. The Insalata Piazza featured butter lettuce, candied pecans, and Gorgonzola along with balsamic vinaigrette, prettily arranged in the shape of a flower. We tried our own salads, and then we switched to see what we had been missing, but still, I couldn't decide which one to claim.

Even though nothing we ordered felt heavy, the portions at Café Piazza are generous, and we found our server helpful with suggestions from the menu. My companion, happy that trying two varieties on one pizza was deemed "no problem at all," chose the It's Greek to Me and the Bianca. The Greek pizza included feta and mozzarella cheese, kalamata olives, spinach, and grape tomatoes, and the Bianca was all mozzarella and alfredo sauce. Although thin-crust pizza is not my favorite, this pizza crust was a perfectly flaky, crispy canvas for all the toppings. For my entrée, I selected the Maryland blue crab ravioli, which was served simply with a light alfredo sauce and a smattering of herbs. There are so many different pasta dishes on the menu; the ravioli and the spaghetti and meatballs are at the top of my list for next time.

I loved the desserts even before I found out that they're all made from scratch by Pat's wife, Mary Beth Lucchesi. With a mix of traditional Italian choices as well as many lush cakes, the dessert menu is extensive. Curious, I had to try the tartufo, a small scoop of vanilla gelato encased in chocolate mousse with hazelnuts and dusted with cocoa powder. The powder's smoky bitterness cut the sweetness of the dessert and made for a sharp, savory layer. The peach pecan crisp reminded me of a clafouti in its presentation, with peaches suspended in a creamy batter, but I won't quibble. Whatever they call it, the crisp was a success — very buttery, warm, and with just enough spice to bring out the peaches' flavor and a topping of toasted pecans.

While I wasn't thrilled at first to be relegated to the same little two-top once again at lunch a week later, soon, I found a distinct benefit. I was able to gauge diners' reactions as they arrived and left, and I noticed that warm compliments were plentiful. Later, I was told that Café Piazza does not take reservations, but I noticed that no one had to wait very long for a table even though the restaurant remained pretty full while we were there.

Our appetizer at lunch, toasted cheese ravioli, arrived steaming hot along with a smooth, spicy tomato sauce for dipping. Rolled in bread crumbs and parmesan, the nutty, crisp ravioli was the perfect start to our meal. We weren't sure if it was baked or fried, which is probably a good sign.

Next, I decided to see what Pat's Chicken Salad was all about; I'd heard it was a house favorite, and its Asian theme obviously stood out among the Italian fare. The sesame-ginger dressing on it was sweet and sharp, and the careful attention to temperature made it great as an entrée salad: Plenty of warm, crunchy strips of fried chicken complemented the chilled greens, shredded carrots, and almonds.

In addition to the dizzying amount of pizzas and pasta dishes, many panini sandwiches are on offer at Café Piazza. The portobello panini, with its strips of meaty, marinated mushrooms, tomatoes, and melted mozzarella on herbed focaccia bread, was full of earthy flavor.

For dessert, I was ready to try something new yet classic. The Italian lemon cake was chilled and dense with a nice balance of sweet and tart. Finished with a swirl of raspberry sauce and a shake of powdered sugar, it reminded us of a lighter, citrusy version of cheesecake. The tiramisu, layered and intense, boasted of coffee and vanilla flavors along with a touch of liqueur. Both desserts had an unexpected airiness that surprised us since they appeared so creamy and dense.

With its warm colors on the walls, white tablecloths, and strings of tangled brambles lit with tiny lights bordering the ceiling, Café Piazza's interior is festive and picturesque. As I explored the rest of the space, I noticed that care had been taken to ensure that every part of this converted house was made useful: Open closets held neatly stacked wine and glasses, and the small dining rooms gave the space an intimate feel.

I so enjoyed my meals at Café Piazza. Its comforting food was never difficult just for the sake of being inventive, but was straightforward in the best possible way. A quiet confidence in the caliber of the cuisine was apparent in the preparation of all of the dishes I tried, as well as in the servers' recommendations. I felt as though I had fallen upon a keeper, a place far enough away from the city that enjoying a meal there feels like a true respite. Because of this, Café Piazza certainly stands out as one of Collierville's brightest lights.

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