Review: Why the Canned Mushrooms, Pete and Sam?
A breadbasket filled with sad loaves of bread, packs of Melbatoast from Sysco and butter you can’t spread will start a meal on shaky ground. The same breadbasket at an Italian restaurant will start the meal in a ditch.
Few restaurants in Memphis command a reputation like Pete and Sam’s. What exactly that reputation is varies from person to person, but there’s no denying that the restaurant’s longevity and local charm reflects well of this Italian dive. But if my recent visit is any indication of where this restaurant stands, Pete and Sam’s has lost its groove, no longer a treasure in the city but an antique in need of a good dusting.
The BBQ pizza was as good as I remember, but not good enough for the entire menu to lean on. Maybe it’s the genius of the loci — dozens of diners packed into a low-ceiling, dimly lit room, drinking bottles of wine, twirling spaghetti without a spoon — that keeps Pete and Sam’s going. Judging by the clientele, customers from way back when movie theaters only cost 10 cents are the lifeline of this place. If that’s so, the clock is ticking for both parties, each having forgotten what once was and unable to see, or in this case taste, what now is.
Veal breaded Italian style turned out innocently enough (although the use of canned mushrooms was shocking), but my friends who both ordered the Veal parmesan were victims of dishes so wrong that the Mafia must have been involved. On my left a veal so chewy my Rottweiler would have had issues. On my right, a veal that screamed old, death, weird, and of course chewy, all in one bite. And across from me sat a pile of under-seasoned yet overcooked shrimp and spaghetti.
The waitress was kind enough to replace the two veal entrees with something else. My friends both agreed to order dessert, which turned out as poor of a decision as the veal parmesan. The tiramisu was so dry and sobering that a Puritan must have made it; the cannelloni an abomination both inside and out with a dry, stale exterior enforced by a mysteriously gritty mixture inside.
But for all the bad, Pete and Sam’s must be doing something right to lockdown a full house on a Friday night. Maybe it’s their reputation of the past that attracts the kind of customers who impersonate Elvis except with the added accessory of a much needed cane. Or maybe it’s the kind of Memphis staple that’s too local to go awol. Maybe the customers know how to navigate the menu.
Whatever it is, I have no desire to find out.