A SIDE OF CHARM, DASH OF HOMINESS

> FEEL-GOOD AT­MOS­PHERE IS FILL­ING AT PETE & SAM’S

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Review - By Jen­nifer Biggs and Peggy Burch

Din­ing re­view­ers Jen­nifer Biggs and Peggy Burch visit a lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion once a month and write about it. We do not give star rat­ings to th­ese beloved es­tab­lish­ments. If you’ve got an old fa­vorite you think we should try, e-mail us.

JB: I’m go­ing to come right out and say it. There are ex­cep­tions, but mostly, I don’t go to Pete & Sam’s for the food.

PB: You go for the at­mos­phere? The crowds stacked up in the en­try­way, the dimly lighted rooms?

JB: I love the at­mos­phere! Ev­ery­body has a good time when they go to Pete & Sam’s— hon­estly. While I’ve never eaten a pasta dish there that I’d or­der again (well, the can­nel­loni was good and I’ll come back to that), I’ve never left there without a smile on my face. I love the old-fash­ioned dé­cor, the wait­resses that call me “honey,” the wait­ers that set up dates with the young women — it’s all so friendly, so “you’re a guest in my house.”

PB: I’m a P&S fan; my fam­ily used to go once a week. I loved the wall light fix­tures with pic­ture frames around them in the south din­ing room — they were lost in the ren­o­va­tion a cou­ple of years ago. Now they’ve got those “his­tor­i­cal” prints of peo­ple eat­ing spaghetti. And the all-pur­pose hol­i­day trib­ute with glit­ter and Christ­mas lights and stars and stripes in the cen­ter of the south room is a good ef­fect.

JB: Hmm. There was a ren­o­va­tion? I don’t be­lieve it ex­tended to the menu, but let me be clear that I’m not com­plain­ing about that. I ex­pect new restau­rants to up­date their menus from time to time, but would be heart­bro­ken to see an in­sti­tu­tion like Pete & Sam’s do it. The food is in­cred­i­bly retro. Where else in town will you find stuffed cel­ery as an ap­pe­tizer? I’m crazy about it, by the way — my grand­mother would put it out on ev­ery hol­i­day ta­ble.

PB: But, as you say, any long­time Pete & Sam’s loy­al­ist would be bummed by changes. We al­ways or­dered the same thing: One bar­be­cue pizza as an ap­pe­tizer — face it, Jen­nifer, cheese and bar­be­cue sauce can come to­gether peace­fully on one crisp crust. One medium-rare dou­ble sir­loin — it feeds a fam­ily of four; kids will eat the crusty out­side parts — with Ital­ian sal­ads and spinach. Some­times, to break out of the rou­tine, we or­dered the but­tery spaghetti with shrimp and mush­rooms.

The dress­ing on the “Pete & Sam’s Fa­mous Ital­ian Salad” we had last week­end wasn’t as good as the ver­sion I re­mem­ber from days past. There wasn’t as much pep­per, and it wasn’t as tart. The dress­ing I re­mem­ber was made from the sim­plest stock in­gre­di­ents, but it was a work of art.

JB: I don’t care for bar­be­cue pizza, Peggy B., and you can’t change my mind on that. But oth­er­wise I adore the piz­zas at Pete & Sam’s. I have an ac­quain­tance who lives in Los An­ge­les (a writer mar­ried to a movie star, but I don’t name drop ...) and her in-laws send her frozen Pete & Sam’s piz­zas for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Here’s how much I like go­ing there: I never or­dered a pizza un­til she told me this about five years ago. I would go, eat pasta that was only so-so, but go back again and again be­cause I just liked be­ing there. Once I tried the pizza, though, I stuck with it. I love that you can get an Around the World, with each piece dif­fer­ent. The crust, even on the “baby” (I thought it was cute that the wait­ress called it that) pizza we had last week­end, has that great cracker snap. Love that kind of crust.

PB: Can we talk about spinach?

JB: The spinach is per­fect. I mean it. Plenty of gar­lic, but not too much. Good on the salt, a lit­tle Parm — and it’s not drowned in but­ter and cream. There might be but­ter in it, and don’t get the idea that I’m against but­ter or cream, but this is a clean and sim­ple dish, not weighed down with lots of fat. Of course, I guess there was plenty of that in the 10pound steak we or­dered …

PB: It bears re­peat­ing, the spinach is ex­cel­lent. And the steak — it’s more than an inch, closer to 2 inches thick, right? When it ar­rived it was a true medium rare (but then when we got to the mid­dle, too rare). Our co-worker who tagged along got two more meals out of the left­overs.

JB: It was mas­sive, if ac­tu­ally not quite 10 pounds. The can­nel­loni was my fa­vorite dish of the evening. The fill­ing is meat and spinach, maybe with a lit­tle ri­cotta, and the red sauce is baked on top un­til it’s re­duced.

The best thing of all, of course, is that you take your own wine and the cork­age is only $2.50 per glass.

PB: That’s not the only best thing at Pete & Sam’s. How about the cast of char­ac­ters at the counter, star­ring Mr. Sam?

JB: Ha! I love be­ing around all those folks. As much as I hate to wait for a ta­ble, at least it’s en­ter­tain­ing when you’re wait­ing there. When I was pay­ing the bill af­ter our visit, one of the wait­ers came out and said, “Mr. Sam, 86 the spaghetti sauce.” Mr. Sam didn’t re­spond, so a guy from the kitchen got in on it. “Mr. Sam,” he said, his voice a lit­tle ex­cited, “there’s only this much left.” He showed an ap­prox­i­mate mea­sure­ment with his hands, but Mr. Sam never looked up. “That’s the per­fect amount,” he an­swered.

And that’s a fit­ting anec­dote for end­ing this. The mix­ture of hits, misses and quirky char­ac­ters gives this in­sti­tu­tion the per­fect amount of charm and hominess.

Pho­tos by Brad Lut­trell Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Sam Bo­mar­ito (right), owner of Pete & Sam’s, talks with twice­weekly diner John Willing­ham in the main din­ing area of the restau­rant at 3886 Park. In the busi­ness for over half a cen­tury, Bo­mar­ito still greets cus­tomers at the door — many by name. A hefty sir­loin (be­low) aims at hearty ap­petites.

Pete & Sam’s Around the World pizza (above) has be­come a sig­na­ture item, with dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents on ev­ery slice. Also pop­u­lar among regulars is the can­noli pas­try (be­low). And where else in town will you find stuffed cel­ery as an ap­pe­tizer?

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