How about a side of theater with your collard greens? It's an unlikely, yet fascinating pairing whose time has come at Mezzo Forte, a soul food restaurant and entertainment venue in downtown Hartsville. Each week, greens, pulled pork, ham hock gravy and other classic soul food dishes get upper crust treatment at the eatery, where patrons can often enjoy live shows and white tablecloth dining at the same time.
Mother-son duo Wanda and Brian Forte bring their individual talents to the table for a mashup of food and art that keeps the dining room full. A veteran caterer, Wanda is the menu mastermind - a visionary who uses classic ingredients to create "elevated soul food."
"This is soul food fusion," she said. "I take a traditional dish and give it a twist. I love being creative in the kitchen and having this restaurant lets me do just that. The fact that people love what I do makes me very happy. I'm giving them new ways to enjoy their favorite foods."
Take turnip greens, for instance, which are traditionally served flecked with pork and bathed in a salty pot likker. At Mezzo Forte, they are the foundation of a hot, cheesy spread presented alongside a baguette for slathering. Or consider their most popular sandwich, The Hayward (named for Wanda's late father), a tasty mix of smoky pulled pork, collards, applewood-smoked bacon and provolone cheese layered between a crusty roll.
Grilled marinated chicken with crab gravy, pork loin drizzled with ham hock sauce, fried sweet potatoes, chicken and waffles, and a Caribbean chicken curry served with a crunchy, tangy-sweet chow-chow on the side have quite a following, as well. Another crowd-pleaser is Three Beef Burgundy, a soul food version of the French dish, Boeuf Bourguignon: ox tails, short ribs and stew beef slow-cooked in a rich red wine sauce. On the Sunday Soul buffet, traditionalists get some love with greats such as baked ham, blackeyed peas, macaroni and cheese, and rice and gravy.
"The menu rotates and I'm adding new things as I'm inspired, so there's always something different to try," Wanda said.
But the full experience of Mezzo Forte is had through a mingling of food, family and art. Your server is likely to be an aunt, uncle, cousin, nephew or brother of the owners. Wanda's mother, Mallie, might chat you up just to make sure you're enjoying things. Brian, a renaissance man with a background in theater and music, designed an atmosphere that showcases the colorful, funky works of local artists. Ask for a table beneath an oil painting of Prince - dining doesn't get any hipper than that.
On any given night, you might enjoy live jazz, a one-act play, the antics of an improv group or a musical revue. In fine weather, the entertainment might be set in Centennial Park, which adjoins the restaurant.
"I want to reflect all aspects of the arts and I think that's what makes our restaurant unique," Brian said. "Mezzo Forte is not only a play on our family name. It represents our interest in food and art, two things we have a passion for that we are blessed to express through this business."
Mezzo Forte is closed Mondays, but serves lunch Tuesday through Sunday, and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.