Evolution of a menu at Old Venice

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

By early summer, Old Venice Pizza Co. hopes to roll out a new menu at its four locations in Tupelo, Oxford, Starkville and Memphis.
But these changes won’t come about overnight.
Owners and managers have been working for weeks with Synergy Restaurant Consultants to come up with ideas to make some of the restaurant’s familiar dishes more healthful and fresh, but still delicious.
“To stay current with the competition, it never hurts to freshen things up,” said Michael Blankenship, director of operations for Old Venice. “We want to be a more innovative source. It’s more about staying ahead. If you don’t try out new things, you become complacent, and we don’t want to do that.”
On Thursday and Friday of last week, Blankenship, along with Old Venice founder Jim Bulian of Oxford and other franchise owners and managers, gathered to sample more than two dozen new dishes the consultants have come up with.
“Most are existing items that they’ve tweaked,” said Dave Buescher, a franchise co-owner. “They’re taking what we’ve done for the past 12 to 15 years and made it more progressive. What you’re going to see is an evolution of our brand to lighter, healthier dining and fresh flavors.”
On Thursday, one of the menu items the consultants tweaked was Meatballs and Spaghetti.
“Their Meatballs and Spaghetti felt more authentic and Italian than what we currently have,” said Randy Davis, who recently returned to Tupelo to manage its restaurant again. “And they prepared a spin on our Crawfish Roll that was unique.”

Use this, not that
Blankenship noted that Old Venice’s menu hasn’t been changed this extensively since Bulian opened the first restaurant in Oxford in 1997.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Blankenship said. “The chefs will come back for four more visits. They’ll come up with different things and then we’ll engineer it, change it to the way we want it. Then their chefs will teach our chefs how to prepare the new dishes.”
At Friday’s taste-testing, Dean Small, managing partner for the Synergy consulting firm, presented 14 dishes. One was Chicken Parmesan Medallions.
First, Small brought out two plates of his new creation. Then, he presented a plate of the same dish the way it’s prepared today at the restaurant.
“This chicken is baked, not fried,” he noted, pointing to the new dish. “And the chicken is marinated, so it’s more tender. The pasta is cooked perfectly, a cook time of three minutes, compared to your cook time now of five to seven minutes. And we’re using spaghetti, not angel hair. Angel hair is too delicate for this dish. You use angel hair for fish. You need a sturdier pasta like spaghetti to hold this.”
The participants around the table bombarded Small with questions: How much protein is in this dish? Is the pasta fresh or dried? How much cheese is on top? What’s the price point?
Dish after dish was put before the group – Prosciutto Wrapped Shrimp, Woodland Mushroom Risotto, Voodoo Salmon, Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo. Each person tasted, questioned, evaluated and filled out a form that rated a dish’s presentation, flavor, eating qualities and perceived value. Those forms will help decide which new or tweaked dishes make the cut.
“Some dishes appear to be an improvement, but some applications could create problems with our preparation apparatus,” said Kevin Summers, assistant kitchen manager for the Tupelo restaurant. “I like the Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo, though. It’s a definite improvement over what we’re serving now. The quality is a lot better.”