Red Sauced

It's not often that I get to redo a review, but I feel that it's due for Cocozza, the Italian-American restaurant that has re-emerged in Harbor Town. Initially starting as a "pop-up" that stood in for the Majestic Grille during the COVID-19 pandemic, owners Patrick and Deni Reilly realized that they had a winner in Cocozza. So last December (2022), they brought it back in the "town square" of Harbor Town. It has taken me awhile to get there, but I finally made the trip to Mud Island/Harbor Town to get some of that red sauce magic.

NOTE: To read my original review, click here to read it on my "mini-blog" on Tumblr.

When I arrived at Cocozza, I was surprised that the restaurant was small, only a fraction of the enormous Majestic. I knew that getting a table was going to be a long wait so I chose to have dinner at the bar. The restaurant itself is nice and cozy (it's like a snazzy version of Dino's Grill), fitting in with the style of Harbor Town. Once I got to the bar, I knew what I wanted to order. It was the Bucatini Amatriciana, a pasta dish that I had at Ecco a couple of years ago. Back then, that was one of the tastiest pasta dishes that I had since leaving Italy. My hopes were that Cocozza would match that experience, something that I can't get at Ecco again because they took the entrée off the menu (update: Ecco has put back on its menu). Regardless of the outcome, the happy vibes I felt from the restaurant's diners gave me confidence that my first experience in the new Cocozza was going to be good.

It didn't take long in getting both my appetizer and main course, which was a good thing because I was hungry. After consuming my bruschetta (which I will talk about a lot later), I got to the main course, the Bucatini Amatriciana (mini side note: why are the pastas listed on the menu as "macaroni"?; it's confusing). Covered with shredded cheese and parsley, the pasta dish looked great, although the sauce was darker than what I expected (granted, the lights were dim in the restaurant). After taking my first bite, I discovered that the sauce didn't have much of the robust tomato presence that I experienced at Ecco. Instead of a strong tomato flavor, Cocozza's pasta had stronger presence of garlic and onions in the sauce that was also laden with tasty pancetta and guanciale (pork gowls).  By the way, bucatini is different from spaghetti in that it is tubular like macaroni. That attribute allows the sauce to flow inside the pasta, providing for a unique tasting experience. Overall, it is a good pasta dish that holds its own with many fine restaurants, but it didn't have that sweet tomato flavor that I was looking for. However, as a traditional "red sauce" dish, I believe it checks the boxes for most people (including a lot of garlic-loving Italians that I know) looking for a good pasta meal. Along with cheesy garlic bread, it was a meal that I overall enjoyed.

Although the pasta was good, I do have a gripe about the bruschetta, if you can call it that. Before I go further, I want to stress that this complaint isn't limited to Cocozza, but to American Italian restaurants in general. Why do they make a simple antipasto/appetizer so complicated? From my MANY experiences in Italy, every plate of bruschetta was simple. A typical bruschetta plate would consist of sliced bread topped with diced tomatoes, basil and/or maybe one or two other toppings. That's it. A simple antipasto that is consumable by hand. Easy eating. However, in nearly every American restaurant that I have visited where bruschetta was on the menu, it had so much stuff on it that made it impossible to eat by hand. And if I need a fork to eat it, then the bruschetta is a "fail" for me. That said, the "bruschetta" that I got at Cocozza was an abomination. Slices of Parmesan bread topped by a mountain of sliced cherry tomatoes. Molti pomodori! What the hell is going on? I ordered bruschetta and got a salad without the lettuce. In terms of taste, it was good but it wasn't even close to traditional Italian bruschetta. In fact, if I were to go from Sicily to the Italian Alps, I'm confident that I won't find any Italian restaurant making bruschetta that looked anything like what I had at Cocozza. The crazy thing is, finding a good bruschetta recipe is as easy as looking it up on Google or YouTube (even former porn star Sasha Grey has a recipe). It is baffling that so many American restaurants can take a simple appetizer and turn it into something radical.

SIDE NOTE: I hope I didn't offend the Reillys, but this was something that I had to get off my chest.

Veal Zeal

For my second visit to Cocozza, I veered away from pasta for another Italian dish, the Veal Parmesan. It's been awhile since I last had it, so I felt it was time to reacquaint myself with the entrée. For the most part, the entrée was pretty much standard, with thin cuts of breaded veal that was covered with Marinara sauce and Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. In terms of taste, the breading was both buttery and crispy, mixing with the Marinara and melted cheeses to accentuate the tender and tasty veal scaloppini. Combined with sides of Marinara-sauced penne pasta and cheesy garlic bread along with a glass of red wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon, I believe), the Veal Parmesan turned out to be a pretty good meal that kept with traditional Italian cuisine. Cocozza gets it right with this.

Not In The "Red"

I didn't want to end my review without mentioning an Italian dessert. In particular, I wanted to focus on tiramisu, the coffee-flavored pastry that's served in most Italian restaurants and cafés. Of course, I didn't want to go to Cocozza only for the dessert, so I decided to get a pasta plate for dinner. Being adventurous, I chose the daily special in the form of a tortellini dish (along with a salad). The Basil Cream Pesto Cheese Tortellini hit all the taste points in its name, with the tasty pesto sauce accentuating all aspects of the pasta. That includes the roasted red bell peppers and chicken that added heft to a delicious pasta meal.

As for the tiramisu, it tasted as well as I expected. It had the requisite flavors of coffee, cocoa, sugar and Italian cream cheese. Even though it was good overall, the tiramisu seemed a bit mushy. I'm not sure if it was afflicted with condensation from a refrigerator or something else, but it seemed that I was getting a bit of aqua with my tiramisu. Of course, given that it has been a long time since I last had it, maybe that's how tiramisu is supposed to be. Anyway, the tiramisu is good, but I would like to try it again when the restaurant opens its doors.

Cocozza is a nice addition to both Harbor Town and the Memphis restaurant community. A big tip of the hat goes to Deni Reilly who was inspired by her Italian-American family whose recipes have been around for decades (the restaurant's name comes from Deni's maternal grandfather's family). Given what I experienced, it seems that both Deni, her husband Patrick and the Cocozza have done a good job in carrying on that tradition, providing a genuine dining experience. The restaurant itself is small and often full of customers, so making reservations is extremely important. The scarcity of open tables at Cocozza Italian American is a testament to the restaurant's popularity, especially among Harbor Town's residents. It's definitely a place that I recommend to anyone looking for a genuine Italian-American dining experience.

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