An Italian Tour

Restaurants that have been feeding my family since 1969

Photo of Tamboli’s by Laney Akin

When I was tasked with developing a timeline of Italian restaurants in Memphis, I thought, “No problem.” So I started a mental list of all the Italian places I’m familiar with, and a quick google search revealed many others. And I realized the list of Italian spots in Memphis is virtually endless. 

But then I thought back over my own life—I’m a born-and-bred Memphian—and of all the personal connections my family has had to Italian restaurants through the years, starting when my parents moved here in 1969, and decided to use those as my framework. 

So join me on this little tour of Italian places past and present. Each has played its own part in making Memphis home for my family.

Photo by Emily Robinson

Dino’s Grill
645 North McLean Boulevard

What to order:
Dino’s famous ravioli
Homemade lasagna

My parents—Donna and Bob Roten—were 19-year-old newlyweds when they moved to Memphis in 1969. After growing up in small-town Mississippi, they met at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville, married, and moved to the big city to finish their education at what was then Memphis State University. They spent the next few years shuttling each other between jobs and college classes. Money was tight, but they occasionally found funds to eat out, often at Italian restaurants.

In the early 1970s, their route between home and school took them down McLean, right by Dino’s Grill, where they would stop for a quick bite after a long day. “You went in and felt like it was your small-town restaurant,” says Mom. “It had things we were familiar with, nothing exotic. Just good, standard Italian food.”

Spaghetti—which is still my dad’s favorite—is what they’d usually order. In those days, Rudy Grisanti owned Dino’s. He’d taken over the restaurant from his dad, who had inherited it from his father, Dino. Today Rudy still works there alongside his son, Mario, the current owner.

It’s no surprise to Rudy and Mario that my young parents—smalltown transplants with limited resources—felt at home at Dino’s.

“Our cuisine is immigrant cuisine,” explains Rudy.

“Immigrants didn’t have money to buy expensive ingredients. They cooked with what they had. So our cooking is comfort food. It’s a place you can come eat any time you want Italian food and not worry about spending an arm and a leg.”

What my parents didn’t know was that 40 years later, their daughter—me—would return to Memphis from an eight-year stint in Virginia with their son-in-law and first grandchild. We bought a house less than a mile from Dino’s, and it was one of the first restaurants we tried in our new neighborhood. Now, when my husband wants one-on-one time with one of our kids, Dino’s is one of his go-to spots. My son and husband recommend the ravioli—which Mario and his staff make by hand every day—and my daughter says you should get it with a Caesar salad on the side.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Kyle

Coletta’s Italian Restaurant
2850 Appling Road
1063 South Parkway East

What to order:
Ravioli
Spaghetti with meatballs

Another place on my parents’ beaten path was Coletta’s original location on South Parkway East, which opened in 1923. “We had spaghetti and lasagna and maybe even something we thought was exotic, like alfredo,” says Mom.

Fast forward to 2002. One of my two best friends was getting married, and she chose the Coletta’s on Appling Road for her rehearsal dinner. At the time, Coletta’s was just one of a handful of restaurants in the area. But it was close to the church, the banquet room was big enough for our group, and the Coletta’s staff was friendly and helpful.

When I met my dad for lunch at Coletta’s recently, we found that friendly helpfulness still was true. Because it had been a while since I’d been there, I tried one of their most popular dishes, the barbecue pizza, which was a favorite of Elvis Presley.

Today, as Coletta’s celebrates its 100th year in business, a fourth generation of Coletta family members own the business, and members of the fifth generation are now working in the restaurants. Stephen’s great grandparents and grandparents moved to Memphis from Italy when his grandparents were young children. He says Coletta’s is “more traditional, Americanized Italian,” and many of their recipes have been handed down through generations. When you walk into the South Parkway East location, both the space and the menu feel much like they did 50 years ago. “It’s definitely old school,” says Stephen. The Appling Road location includes those “old school” menu favorites with some newer additions.

Whichever location you choose, Stephen suggests you try the ravioli or the spaghetti and meatballs.

“You won’t see meatballs on spaghetti in Italy, but it definitely goes well together,” he says.

Photograph by Stacey Greenberg

Pete & Sam’s
3886 Park Avenue

What to order:
Lasagna a la forno en casserole
Ravioli with meat sauce

As life continued to keep them close to Memphis State, Mom and Dad occasionally stopped at Pete & Sam’s for dinner. “Being poor, we didn’t stop there every week,” says Mom. But when they did go, they felt like they were part of a Memphis tradition. 

“I remember it as being darker and, back in those days, probably a little smoky,” says Mom. “There was wine and delicious Italian food, and you felt like the people next to you might be an Italian family coming to have dinner in their favorite Italian place.”

When I was a teenager, my other best friend often visited Pete & Sam’s with her family, whose favorites were spaghetti, ravioli, and BBQ pork pizza. And when I returned to Memphis as an adult, Pete & Sam’s was one of the first places I took my husband and daughter for lasagna and spaghetti.

Mine and my friend’s families aren’t alone in having generations visit Pete & Sam’s.

“Throughout the years, it’s been the families that keep coming back in that separates us from a lot of other places,” says Sammy Bomarito, who co-owns Pete & Sam’s with his brother, Michael Bomarito. 

Founded in 1948 by Sammy’s late father, Sam, Pete & Sam’s is celebrating its 75th year. Many of the recipes are handed down from Sam’s mother, who immigrated from Sicily, and you can taste that Sicilian influence in their sauces. “We make everything here in-house; there’s hardly anything we outsource,” says . “We’re definitely a traditional Italian restaurant.”

Photo of Elfo’s via Facebook

Grisanti family restaurants
Frank Grisanti’s Italian Restaurant – 1022 South Shady Grove Road
David Grisanti’s on Main – 148 North Main Street, Collierville
Elfo Grisanti’s – 5627 Getwell Road, Southaven, Mississippi

What to order:
Elfo Special (available at all three restaurants listed here)

Like many Memphians, my parents remember Grisanti-owned restaurants as having always been part of the Memphis Italian scene. They would go to (the now closed) Grisanti’s Restaurant on Lamar for special occasions, like my dad’s end-of-season team dinner for touch football. “I remember thinking it was rather exotic with things on the menu I was not so familiar with,” says Mom. “Not just spaghetti but pastas I’d not had before—sauces that weren’t just the red sauce like I was aware of. I caught glimpses of [owner] John Grisanti in the dining room, schmoozing and interacting and being bigger than life. I remember thinking, ‘These are real Italians, and they know what they’re doing!’”

In later years, my parents would take Dad’s business guests to Frank Grisanti’s for dinner. “Its menu is much wider than we would have seen in the old Italian restaurants that we went to in the day—more sophisticated,” says Mom. And when I was a teenager, the now-closed Grisanti’s Bol a Pasta was my favorite.

The Grisanti family has been in Memphis for 116 years and owned several restaurants over the years, starting when immigrant and family patriarch Rinaldo Grisanti opened his restaurant on South Main Street in the 1920s. Alex is one of the great grandsons of Rinaldo, and he and his wife, Kim, own Elfo Grisanti’s in Southaven, Mississippi. Rinaldo’s grandson Frank and great grandson David own their own Grisanti restaurants. (Mario Grisanti, owner of Dino’s Grill, is a cousin of Alex, Frank, and David. Mario is descended from Ettore Grisanti, who was one of Rinaldo’s brothers.) 

Alex has honed his skills as a chef, training professionally and traveling often to cook and learn in Italy. He enjoys rotating specials on his Elfo Grisanti’s menu and educating customers on regional Italian food, and he’s long worked to bring more Italian wines to Memphis. But, eventually, he always returns to his family roots and tradition.

My family is known for giving people homemade pasta that is from the heart,” he says.

“I use the same family recipes that my family made 116 years ago. When you come and eat, you’re going to get true Grisanti-style cooking. You’re going to say, ‘It was the best damn plate I ever had.’ I stick to my roots 1000% on that.”

Photograph by Laney Akin

Ecco
1585 Overton Park Avenue

What to order:
Trofie al pesto
Linguini alle cozze

When my daughter began elementary school at our neighborhood public school, I was helping prepare for a school fundraiser. My assigned task? To stop by a new neighborhood restaurant to pick up beautiful trays of food they were providing for the evening. The restaurant was Ecco, which, almost a decade later, has become an Evergreen neighborhood fixture. Its front patio is a favorite spot for people-watching with friends or enjoying a date night.

Sabine Bachmann runs the restaurant with her three sons. (She also owns Tonica, just down the street from Ecco, and Libro, which is housed inside Novel bookstore.) Though she’s originally from Germany, she spent six years in Italy before coming to the United States. When she arrived here, the Italian food she found was generally the “immigrant cuisine” that Mario Grisanti proudly serves at Dino’s. But Sabine wanted to prepare something that was closer to what she had eaten in Italy. So she opened Ecco, which she says isn’t strictly Italian but has a strong Italian influence.

To her, Italian food is synonymous with eating fresh and in-season.

“What Italian food means to me is, of course, pasta. Pasta in Italy is just a staple; every region has its own pasta. We make our own pasta fresh in house unless it’s gluten free,” says Sabine.

“That’s another thing that Italian food really is all about—freshness prepared daily. You cook with the seasons, use the vegetables of the seasons.”

On Ecco’s menu, the simplest items are Sabine’s favorites. “I love our trofie al pesto,” she says. “That was one of those things that—before we went into the restaurant business—I would make for my kids all the time. It’s an easy-to-do staple, and it’s very satisfying.”

She enjoys changing ravioli fillers with the seasons—pumpkin in fall, leeks in summer. “With pasta you can get really fancy and do all kinds of things, but for me simplicity is what I really like,” she says.

Photograph by Chip Chockley

Bari Ristorante e Enoteca
524 South Cooper Street

What to order:
Spaghetti alla carbonara
Orrecchiette alla Pugliese

My mom first visited Bari—Midtown’s southeastern Italian restaurant and wine bar—with a friend whose husband is part of an Italian family that settled in Memphis generations ago. At the time, Mom had traveled in northern Italy, but never southern, and Bari’s food was new to her. Some years later, she and Dad traveled to Italy again and found themselves in Bari, the town the Memphis restaurant is named for. “It was a thrill to me to be there,” she says.

I haven’t yet traveled to Italy, but my husband and I got a taste of it when we visited Bari one year for my birthday. It was an intense season of parenting, and an evening with just adults at Bari felt like a real respite, with some of the best food I’ve ever had and wonderful service—knowledgeable, friendly, and understated.

Rebecca and Jason Severs own Bari. Jason’s mother is from Capurso, Italy, a town just outside of Bari. In Italy, regions have their own specialties, just like Memphis is home to barbecue while Wisconsin is known for cheese, explains Jason. Though Jason and Rebecca both grew up in Tennessee, they spent a short time living in California, where they found plenty of regional Italian restaurants, something they hadn’t seen at home. “We need to do this in Memphis,” they thought.

Previous generations of Italian immigrants had adapted their cooking to what was available to them in their new homes. “For Italians that moved to America, especially in the ’30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, to make spaghetti carbonara, you had to use bacon and a lesser cheese,”  says Jason.

Today a much greater variety of ingredients is widely available, making it possible to make authentic southeastern Italian cuisine in Memphis.

“The one dish that we will never take off the menu is the orrecchiette alla Pugliese,” says Rebecca.

“It’s a traditional pasta that’s made in the Puglia region and specifically around Bari. If you want to experience what it’s like to get on a plane and go to Bari, this is what you’re going to have.”

Their most popular dish is the spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pancetta, caramelized onion, fresh egg, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. “Italians love the carbonara here,” says Rebecca.

Photograph by Laney Akin

Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza
1761 Madison Avenue

What to order:
Lemon pepper fettuccine
Pasta alla boscaiola (occasional fall special)

When I first met Miles Tamboli, owner of Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza, he was a farmer, selling his seasonal produce at the Memphis Farmers Market. He was following in the footsteps of his forefather, Nazzareno Tamboli, who immigrated to the Mid-South’s Delta region in 1909. These “Delta Italians,” as they became known, earned their living growing vegetables for markets. 

For Miles, a visit to the Tamboli homeland in Italy resulted in him expanding his business to include making pasta and other goods to sell at the market. And, in 2019, he opened Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza on Madison Avenue. I enjoyed a birthday dinner there in early 2020, and once the pandemic hit, Tamboli’s brightened up many weekend evenings for my family with their takeout pizza and grocery staples.

“The way I like to describe it is we are Italian in philosophy and inspiration and style,” Miles says. “My family got here and assimilated as fast as possible, and the best I would get is a Stouffer’s lasagna. I was a farmer before I opened a restaurant. What always spoke to me was the quality of food based on the quality of ingredients. That’s really what got me into farming. I wanted good food, and I wanted to make good food.”

A trip to Italy helped Miles see the close connection between Italian food and his own love for local produce and other ingredients. “I realized how in line Italian food is with the idea of really high quality proteins and produce,” he says. “The Italian food I grew up experiencing was really Americanized, which is not a bad thing. When Italians came here, they had to make do with the ingredients we had here.”

Though Miles has given up farming, today Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza follows in the footsteps of Italian immigrants by featuring ingredients he can find close to home, like meats from Home Place Pastures and mushrooms from Bluff City Fungi. But what’s available today is much broader than what earlier generations had access to.

“It’s really ingredient-based food that’s not a cut and copy of what you have in Italy because we don’t have those ingredients here,” says Miles.

“But it’s also not what your Italian-American grandma makes.”

Their most popular pasta, lemon pepper fettuccine, exemplifies what they do well, says Miles. “It’s a pasta that we came up with because we get this great chicken from Marmilu Farms,” he says. “We made a lemon pepper seasoning for it that is so good, and we wanted to pair a pasta with that. It’s accessible, but it’s also different and really good. It’s something I feel good about making and serving.”

Miles is proud to be part of the Italian scene in Memphis. “It’s diverse, and I really appreciate that,” he says. “I love Bari; I love going and getting something that’s so reminiscent of very specific cuisine. I love classic American-Italian food too.”

Photograph by Laney Akin

What’s next for me

That’s just a taste, if you will, of the Italian restaurants that have been part of my family’s life in Memphis. I have other memories of lunch with my mom at Ciao Bella, reliable heat-at-home dishes from Lucchesi’s, and twirling forkfuls of Catherine & Mary’s pasta with the lights of the Orpheum down the street.

And there are still so many places to try. Top of my list is Cocozza, a pandemic pop-up that’s found a permanent home in Harbor Town.

Farm & Fig (co-owned by one of the Grisanti family branches), Valle’s Italian Rebel (a staple since the 1970s), Andrew Michael (the first of several restaurants opened by Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman), Brooklyn Bridge (a longtime East Memphis staple), and Vanelli’s Deli (a recent Germantown favorite of my parents). If you see me out there, be sure to say hi. I’ll be the one begging my kids to slow down and save some pasta for me!

Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves the whole storytelling process—from getting to know all the wonderful people she interviews, to weaving together a story, to being entrusted with editing other writers’ work.