A True Memphis
By Tracy Morin | Photography courtesy of Justin Fox Burks and Coletta’s Italian Restaurant
Memphis’ oldest continuously operating restaurant has served from-scratch Italian specialties and the nation’s original barbecue pizza along with Southern hospitality for nearly a century.
In 1923, Emil Coletta, an Italian immigrant who’d settled in Memphis, Tenn., started a humble traveling business to support his family. The Suburban Ice Cream Company began as a horse-and-wagon operation, and Emil circled the neighborhood, selling ice cream bars alongside Italian staples like spaghetti, ravioli, and sandwiches.
When his son, Horest, entered the business — which eventually burgeoned into a brick-and-mortar spot called Coletta’s Italian Restaurant — in the early 1950s, Emil decided to focus more on the Italian food aspect. And it soon became clear that pizza might be the ideal menu addition.
“Sailors from a local Navy base came in and asked for pizza, but in the ’50s, it was still an unknown food around here,” recounts Jerry Coletta, current owner of Coletta’s and Horest’s son. “My dad went to Chicago to learn how to make pizza, and he put it on the menu. But it wasn’t going over too well, since no one knew what it was.”
The tide started to shift, however, when Horest devised a savvy plan to entice the locals with his newfangled food item. Everyone in the area knew barbecue, so why not top a pizza with the Memphis food standard? Soon, the country’s original barbecue pizza was born, and Coletta’s was officially on the map.
To this day, The Original Barbeque Pizza remains a true original, with the restaurant’s homemade pizza dough creating the ideal serving slab for a hefty portion of pork slathered in barbecue sauce made from scratch. The pizza is carefully crafted: First, a layer of barbecue sauce and mozzarella is baked on the crust in the oven. After emerging, the pizza is topped with the cooked barbecue meat, plus more barbecue sauce on top.
“Other places have tried to copy it, but we cook our pork shoulder and Boston butts for eight hours,” Jerry Coletta explains. “We’re very generous with the barbecue pork, and the pizza is our signature item. It has kept us in business all these years.”
The pizza at Coletta’s even won the approval of The King himself. Naturally, Elvis Presley was a tad too high-profile to dine in frequently, but his wife, Priscilla, would drop by for regular takeouts, Coletta recalls.
“Elvis came in several times, and we gave him his privacy,” he says. “When he was here, of course the building was abuzz, and he had a bodyguard on each side of him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, we didn’t have delivery, so Priscilla would come in once or twice a week and take barbecue pizzas back to Graceland.”
Of course, after almost 100 years in operation, Coletta’s has built up its own aura of fame, both locally and worldwide. Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay visited the Memphis institution for his Food Network TV show “BBQ With Bobby Flay,” while the restaurant has been featured on the Travel Channel and tops many “must-visit” lists within the Memphis area.
Now with three locations, Coletta’s enjoys a firmly cemented reputation in the Bluff City and beyond. The restaurant grew to a second spot in 1956, on Summer Avenue, which stayed open for 40 years before burning down in 1996. Ever resilient, Coletta instead reopened on Appling Road in 1998, while today a food-court outlet operates at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center on Madison Avenue, where employees sling pizza by the slice, pasta dishes, and other fan favorites for lunchtime only.
But, no matter which of its three outposts diners choose, they’re bound to leave satisfied. To ensure consistency across locations, the family oversees a commissary next to the original Coletta’s on South Parkway East. There, multiple 100-gallon batches of meat sauce are slow-cooked every week for popular homemade Italian specialties like lasagna, manicotti, and ravioli.
The business remains a true family affair, now spanning five generations that have helped Coletta’s thrive for nearly a century. As Jerry and his wife, Diane, run the original location, their three children, Stephen, Lisa, and Kristina, operate the Appling restaurant. Three of Jerry’s grandchildren pitch in as well; the oldest, Lindsey, graduated college in the restaurant/hospitality field and takes the reins on customers’ frequent bookings for parties and wedding receptions.
However, one needn’t be a blood relative to receive the family treatment at Coletta’s. In addition to longtime employees serving up Italian fare with a smile, customers often return for decades. Coletta himself grew up in the business, once standing on cases of Coca-Cola to act as cashier when he was a young boy.
“To stay successful this long, you have to have good food — that’s what keeps people coming back — but we’re also blessed to have good employees,” Coletta says. “And a lot of customers become friends after you’ve known them for so long. Couples will come in and say they had their first date here 20 or 50 years ago. It’s exciting to talk to people who have been coming for so long and keep coming back. And we go out of our way to keep everything the same for them.”