That's Italian

Old Venice brings its interpretation of casual Italian fare to East Memphis.

Old Venice Pizza Company, which opened last summer in East Memphis on Perkins Extended near Poplar, may be familiar to those who spend time in Oxford, Mississippi -- the original has operated on the town square since 1997, with other Mississippi locations in Jackson and Starkville.

The restaurant specializes in hand-tossed pizzas in a big way. You can choose from the 28 specialty pizzas, or create your own by selecting from a list of 60 toppings ranging from crawfish, gyro meat, and cream cheese to pine nuts and three kinds of mushrooms. The specialty pies include the Mona Lisa (vegetables, ham, and feta), Daddy Crawdaddy (crawfish tails, red peppers, cream cheese) and Hog Wild (barbecue pork, sweet barbecue sauce, and cheddar). Appetizers, 24 pastas, salads, meat entrees, sandwiches, and calzones complete the menu.

All of this is served in a large dining room that's lofty and pleasant, with soft sienna tones, modern Venetian glass lamps hanging from the ceiling, and large shuttered faux windows filled with colorful paintings of a Venice cityscape. A double row of booths runs up the middle, with tables against the walls. There's also a bar near the front with tables, and a smaller, quieter dining room off the bar. The front patio was not yet open when we visited.

We ate at Old Venice twice, and found the same huge menu available at both lunch and dinner.

For lunch we focused on pizza, ordering four individual-size pies (each is available in large as well). Our favorite was the Mona Lisa, topped with garlic sautéed spinach, artichokes, mushrooms, ham, and mozzarella and feta cheeses over marinara. The flavors melded well with the light pizza sauce, making it somehow refreshing. The Banscueccio (pronounced ban-SWAY-cho), too, was a winner, with mozzarella layered over cream cheese with chicken, zingy jalapeno slices, and red onion. The only pizza sauce on this pie was artfully squirted in a squiggly design atop the mozzarella. The Porto Fino was bland, with shrimp, a few vegetables, and a thick layer of cheese on top. The cheese and mushroom pizza was par for the course, though the crust was thick and chewy, perhaps a nuance better and crisper than Papa John's. Because of the thick crust, each individual pizza was filling enough for two.

At dinner, we started with two appetizers. The crawfish roll consisted of three large egg rolls filled with a rich blend of crawfish tails, red pepper, bacon, and cream cheese: a big hit with us. The thick fried portabella mushroom topped with the restaurant's light marinara, was nothing special.

Old Venice does salads right. You can order a generous side-salad portion of any on the menu for $3.25. The Molta Bella consisted of mixed greens with fresh strawberry slices, blue cheese crumbles, and walnuts with a sweet raspberry vinaigrette, while the Mediterranean included artichoke hearts, a generous amount of pine nuts, and a fabulous vinaigrette. The Ionian salad is a basic chef's salad: Romaine, bacon, hardboiled eggs, ham, and salad vegetables, tossed with, unfortunately, straight-from-the-bottle Italian dressing (I would have preferred the Mediterranean vinaigrette). You can also get a large or small portion, and add chicken, shrimp, or tuna for an extra cost.

We barely scratched the surface of the pasta menu, ordering three out of 24. The wild mushroom fettuccine was the best of the bunch, al dente noodles with garden, shiitake, and Portobello mushrooms in a smooth cream sauce tangy with balsamic vinegar. The other two were bland and unremarkable. The Pasta Maria consisted of penne pasta with big chunks of grilled chicken, mushrooms, bacon, and a pale tomato cream sauce. The Prima Donna combined grilled chicken, proscuitto, green olives, red bell peppers, and roasted garlic with penne, yet the garlic was virtually undetectable.

We also sampled the veal a la Napoli, a thick, juicy slice of veal cooked barely pink in the middle with a mild cream sauce and chunks of mushroom. The grilled chicken Grecque was a chicken breast cooked with Greek herbs and topped with feta cheese. The chicken was fine, but the creamy Italian spinach on which it was served was far too salty.

Old Venice has a thoughtful wine list, with many of the usual moderately priced suspects and some Italian wines, many of them by the glass.

For dessert, we tried the tiramisu, a so-so version that was dominated by the flavor of Kahlua. The cappuccino mousse was a pie slice with brownie crust and a bland, ultra-dense filling that tasted more like chocolate than cappuccino. I found myself craving something light and refreshing like sorbet after all that pasta and chewy thick pizza, though, rather than the heavy desserts on this menu.

As for service, it varied from meal to meal. At dinner we were ignored for such long intervals we felt as though they weren't even trying. Even allowing for the fact there was some confusion about whether our party was complete and ready to order, service was sloppy. Food did arrive promptly once we placed our orders, however. Things were smoother at lunch, when our server was more attentive to details and delivered our food quickly, recognizing that many diners are on their lunch hour. She also wasted no time bringing crayons and paper to keep kids entertained -- always a plus.

Old Venice plays it safe with food that's consistently good, but never adventurous and rarely adroitly seasoned. The ingredients are fresh, the pizza sauce is better than most, and there are plenty of choices. The atmosphere is pleasant, and the young staff is nice, although often not terribly professional or attentive. A meal there is more enjoyable if you are not in a hurry or expecting white-glove service.

It's easy to see why Old Venice is a popular spot, though, with its pleasant, laid-back atmosphere, moderate prices, and large, varied menu.

For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for Old Venice.

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