A Saucy Buffet

Contessa proves that all-you-can-eat restaurants can actually serve good food

I am not a big fan of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. The food at these places is often mediocre and lukewarm. Service is almost nonexistent. Plus, I don't ever take more than one spin at the buffet; usually, when I eat at an all-you-can-eat place, the restaurant makes money off of me, because I don't overdo it.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of visits to Contessa Café and Catering. Located just west of the Lowe's plaza on West Ina Road, this tiny spot serves some pretty good grub, even if it does come off of a steam table. Not to overuse the cliché, but the food here is just like you might enjoy at a friend's house--if your friend has an Italian nana in their kitchen.

On a recent Tuesday night, the place was packed with families, singles, seniors and an assortment of folks all attracted by the reasonable price of $10.95 for the buffet. We were actually lucky to get a table. Within minutes, our server arrived, carrying two plates, silverware and a smile. She asked if we'd been there before, and when we said no, explained how it worked. She rattled off a list of items available and then took our drink order.

The evening proved to be full of surprises, starting with wine list. Certainly, it was small, but the wines offered were from lesser-known wineries (mostly Italian, of course), and most came by the glass or the bottle. They also have a nice list of cordials and some beer. John ordered a pinot grigio ($5.25), and I ordered a Valpolicella ($5). Both turned out to be good versions of their respective grape.

We grabbed our plates and headed for the buffet. That night, entrées included eggplant parmesan, shrimp manicotti, tortellini stuffed with cheese and sundried tomatoes, baked ziti, sausage and potatoes, and chicken parmesan. Mama's meatballs (yes, that's what they're really called) were prominently displayed, and we had our choice of two sauces: marinara and meat.

There was a salad bar and an antipasto bar, both with so many choices that it would be difficult to name them all. Let's just use that old phrase: There was something for everyone, no matter your preference. The best part about all the choices is that they were fresh and chilled: no soggy, brown-tipped lettuce, no leftover veggies and no room-temperature dressings were to be found.

Between the two of us, we tried just about every entrée available, and we were both surprised at how good everything was. Both sauces were authentic and no doubt had been "made with lots of love." The pastas had not suffered from their time on the steam table, and except for the tortellini (which was stuffed with cheese and sundried tomatoes and topped with sunset sauce), all were steaming hot. It's not that the tortellini was bad, just a little dry. When I asked what the sunset sauce was, I couldn't get a straight answer. No big deal, though, because the flavors blended into a mellow and savory ending.

The meatballs--the true measure of any Italian restaurant, I believe--were delicious. The medium-sized balls were tender, moist and well-seasoned. They are one of the items that are always on the Contessa buffet.

The tiny room was decorated in typical Italian fashion: lots of plates and plants, fruit and flowers; and pictures of veggies, vino and vistas of castles on lovely waterfronts.

It was interesting watching the crowd. There was a table of three older women who must've made four trips to the buffet each, and John lost count watching one guy who filled his plate (too) many times during the hour we were there.

One or two of the many servers on the floor kept tabs on us and everyone else, making sure people got what they needed in a timely and pleasant manner. Since just about every table, including a few on the lovely little patio out front, was full, this was no easy task.

After we had our plates cleared away, our server brought over the dessert tray. The variety and number of desserts was amazing. There was a deep-dish apple pie with caramel sauce, tiramisu, a decadent chocolate cake with a decadent chocolate sauce, raspberry cheesecake, a brownie sundae and two kinds of cannoli.

We ordered the tiramisu ($5.50) and a cannoli ($4.25) with chocolate chips. The cannoli filling was thick and smooth and loaded with chocolate chips. This was as a cannoli should be. With the tiramisu, there was a strong hint of hazelnut, followed by chocolate and sweet cream. The tender ladyfingers added another layer of sweetness and texture.

The promise of pizza lured us to a Saturday lunch ($6.75). But for some unexplained reason, there were panini instead. Long loaves of baguette-like bread were filled with meats, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, peppers and more. They were then grilled and cut up into slices about an inch thick. It would've been easy to eat a dozen of them.

An additional offering this time: linguini with clams. The sauce was too thin, but it was saved by a passel of clams that raised the flavor level.

This time, we took our dessert, the decadent chocolate cake ($5.50), to go. We had fully planned on saving it for dessert after dinner, but it didn't last that long. Almost as light as sponge cake and intense with chocolate, this was indeed decadent and delicious.

While I can't say my attitude about all-you-can-eat places has changed, I'll admit that Contessa has a good grasp on how to do this style of dining the right way. The food is simple, straightforward and made with care; the service is sincere and honest. Both qualities are the secret to success in the restaurant biz, no matter the type or level of dining.