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 10-pound 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.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
-- Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Pete & Sam's
Address: 3886 Park Ave.
Telephone: (901) 458-0694
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m.
Reviewers' choice: Pizzas; steaks; canneloni
Alcohol: Beer only; $2.50 corkage fee per glass for wine