New chef rejuvenates Cortona Contemporary Italian Restaurant
By Crystal Russell/MicroMemphis reporter
Feb. 21, 2013 - Former Erling Jensen’s Chef de Cuisine Nate Olivia has cooked up a fresh menu at his new home kitchen of Cortona Contemporary Italian. Olivia started as the new executive chef of Cortona at the beginning of February. Along with new manager Jennifer Dickerson, Olivia rewrote the menu.
“There’s a real continental flair and global inspiration to the menu. We’re sticking with the roots of the artisanal, rustic food, but we think we’ve brought a lighter, more contemporary feel,” Olivia said.
Olivia helped in the kitchen of Cortona on New Year’s Eve of 2012 as a favor to a longtime friend, and inherited a restaurant in the process. Former Executive Chef David Cleveland proposed that Olivia take over the restaurant, saying he was ready to explore new opportunities outside of the restaurant business.
But Olivia isn’t the only new face at Cortona. In addition to Dickerson, a few new staff members have followed him to Cortona.
“I cleaned house and brought in some of my own people along with the new management team that was brought in. David and the ownership group actually approached Jennifer first. She said, ‘Hey, if I’m coming, I’m bringing this guy with me. He’s the chef that I want to work with,’” Olivia said.
Some of Cleveland’s original restaurant principles are still implemented. Everything is cooked in house, including all of their pasta, cheese, sausage and bread, which are cooked weekly by an in-house baker named Merritt Grevillius. But customers will notice apparent differences.
“David was going for a more traditional trattorio, which is like a family style restaurant in Italy. We’re looking to do something a little bit more upscale to match the cosmopolitan nature of this whole area,” Olivia said.
Some of the new foods include spicy Italian chicken wings, a Prosciutto e Melone pizza and seared duck leg confit.
The word on the street about the newborn menu has been slow to get out. Pamela Denney, food writer for Memphis Magazine’s food blog Memphis Stew is always excited to savor new foods.
“I’ve loved the food at Cortona from the start, because it’s updated Italian food at affordable prices. I haven’t sampled the new menu, but now I can’t wait to try it,” Denney said.
Original Cortona staff from the Cleveland era have something to say about the changes as well. Bartender Jacob Leonardi has worked at Cortona since the restaurant opened its doors in 2011. He left his 10-year post at Ronnie Grisanti’s to bartend at Cortona per Cleveland’s request.
“I like the newer food because it’s a little more progressive, much more modern. It’s a little bit of a sexier menu,” Leonardi said.