For Pete’s sake, it’s Sam’s. And it always will be. Turning basic things into things Memphis is part of our storytelling alchemy. Some mixture of food, drink and funky has to be involved in the telling, and the telling should take a while. Sometimes the stage itself may be the story.
For instance, Italian food is basic, but Pete & Sam’s is basic to Memphis.
It’s early evening in Rome and we’re on our way to a little family trattoria we’ve heard about. We found it tucked away on one of those 10-foot-wide Roman streets that’s so old you’d swear you just passed Ben Hur. There were only four tables, and the family made and served everything from the pasta to the wine. A platter of spinach with enough garlic to keep the vampires in Transylvania was served with great flourish, a family specialty. Our son, 17 at the time, took a bite, leaned over to me and whispered, “Dad, this is not Italian spinach.”
Translation – it was not Pete & Sam’s Italian spinach.
Started by Pete Romeo and Sam Bomarito in 1948 and an Italian-American embassy on Park since 1960, Pete & Sam’s has convinced generations that there’s just one way to make Italian spinach.
Pete left after a year, but Sam kept Pete in the name and the menu basically unchanged. Memphians have made a religion out of that menu and can faithfully recite its litany. Catholics, Jews, Protestants, agnostics and atheists worship there every weekend, packing the lobby, and filling the cracked vinyl booths and bad-motel-restaurant chairs like pews. Sam was the head elder, commanding the cash register, holding forth in front of a wall covered by signed glossies of A-list celebs, B-list celebs and quite a few who-the-hell-is-that celebs.
Pizza with a toasty crust thinner than angel hair, available as a side dish – not just a slice but your very own baby pizza? Oh, Lord. The beacon salad with its dressing of one part thousand-island and three parts Parmesan, covered in diced tomatoes and about a half-pound of crumbled bacon? Praise be. The dilemma of choosing between manicotti, cannelloni, scallopini or one of the best filets you’ve ever had – with an artichoke and Italian spinach pizza on the side? Oy vey. The wine list is great because you bring your own. Amen.
Pete & Sam’s is not for everybody, but every night it looks like a slice of the whole Memphis pizza. People either swear by it or swear they’re never coming back. The décor would have to get better to get bad. Car washes have better wall treatments and lighting.
It’s a lot like me – cheap, salty, loud and, after a little Chianti, in my opinion, a whole lot of fun. It is, in fact, a lot like Memphis – not as pretty as some but not pretentious, full of more than our fair share of good and honest folk, and loaded with local flavor.
I’m a Memphian, and, on behalf of all Memphians, I’d like to say, “Thanks, Sam.”
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.