Conte’s is a devious place with nefarious schemes. Conte’s is also a place with wonderful food like the “Sunday Morning” meatball appetizer that lead the demure lady at the next table to exclaim, “damn! These are good! These are like the ones my mother used to make.” We started with those same meatballs. They were very good. I only wish my mother had made those when I was growing up. The marinara that accompanied the meatballs had just the right acid level for the meat’s texture and density.
Next, I tried the Italian wedding soup. Light stock and orzo pasta hide teensy meatballs packed with flavor. Mama Squirrel had a salad with the homemade Italian dressing. The dressing was as excellent as the marinara.
Mama and I spent quite a bit of time poring over the menu, giving careful consideration to the many tempting entrees before finally making our choices. All our good works were dashed, however, when our server hit us with the nefarious daily specials scheme. We immediately changed our plans and went for the specials.
Mama went for the linguini and clam sauce. These were not just clam strips. These were beautiful fresh clams in their shells nesting on a bed of linguini with an absolutely sinful white wine butter garlic sauce. It was a little bit of work to get the clams out of their shells, but it was completely worth the effort.
I had been craving a hunk of meat all day, so I jumped at the steak pizzaiola, a sixteen-ounce ribeye cooked in marinara and served on linguini. It dawned on me after our server left after taking our order that he had not asked how I wanted my steak. I needn’t have feared though. The steak was a perfect, tender medium. Anyone would have loved that steak. I certainly did. The fresh linguini also made a refreshing change from potatoes.
On our second trip, we took Squirrelly, Jr., and Sorta Sister Squirrel. We had to let them try the meatballs, of course, but since there were more of us, we also went for the asiago-stuffed olives. A quick deep-fry makes the olives milder. The asiago becomes extra creamy, but without a bit more olive bite, there isn’t enough balance in the dish.
We had hoped to try the minestrone on our second trip, but they were out of it. Teh Boy went for the Italian wedding soup and loved it. Mama and SSS had salads with the Italian dressing. I tried the homemade blue cheese dressing on my salad, and it was excellent as well.
SSS loved her chicken Parmesan. She is like Teh Boy in that if she likes something a lot, you are not likely to get any of it. Teh Boy made a valiant attempt but still only made a small dent in his huge portion of Coach Cal’s Noni pasta, scrumptious ricotta sauce over Teh Boy’s pasta choice, angel hair, with sausages thrown in for good measure. Mama got baked ziti and loved it.
The beauty of homemade sauces is the slight variations. On our second trip, the marinara with the meatball appetizer was more thoroughly blended. When I got my spaghetti with gravy, I did a bit of looking, thinking that maybe I had gotten marinara by mistake. One bite was all it took to reassure me though. The meat flavor toned down the acid of the tomatoes and made for a very comforting sauce.
Now, what on earth is xanga? There it was on the dessert menu, piquing our curiosity. I envisioned some elaborate stacking of ladyfingers. The truth proved to be far more satisfying (and less messy). Xanga is cheesecake wrapped in pastry and deep fried. This whole works is then liberally sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Mama liked the dish quite a bit. I liked it overall, but something about the cheesecake being warm caused it to lose some of the sweet creaminess it might have otherwise had.
On our second trip, trying a slice of cheesecake confirmed my xanga suspicions. Conte’s cheesecake is a tasty and creamy delight. It just loses something when it is heated. Our favorite dessert was a thin slice of tiramisu. Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts, but it is not easy to find good versions. Conte’s version is very well balanced between the creaminess of mascarpone and the edge of espresso.
Conte’s is a pleasant little spot, decorated with posters reminding you of the authentic New York Italian experience you’re about to enjoy. Simple tables and chairs also have a nice large window into the kitchen as a backdrop. I love a peek into the kitchen. Somehow it just makes me feel like part of the family. It also boosts our thinking about knocking out really top notch dishes of our own.
Frederic Koeppel mentioned that the Italian music was awfully cliched when he went there. While we were there, the music was on R&B classics on very low volume. About halfway through dinner, the music switched to light Italian. It’s an Italian place. I don’t really expect polka. It’s Memphis, so I am fine with a bit of Stax too. Still, let the Dino roll. Let Frank doobie do his thing. Throw in a little light Pavarotti. Above all, let Louis Prima swing. But don’t worry too much about it. What’s on your plate is what will be singing the beautiful music.
Conte’s Italian Restaurant
149 Madison Ave.
Memphis, TN 38104