Time Capsule: Coletta’s Italian restaurant

In 1922, Emil Coletta opened the Suburban Ice Cream Company, sellingice cream and Italian dishes. But when his son Horest took over thebusiness in the early 1950s, he decided to focus more on food and addedpizza to the menu. Largely unfamiliar to Memphis residents, pizza didn’tsell so well—at first.

“To try to stimulate interest in pizza in general, he came up with theidea of barbecue pizza, which no one, even in Chicago or New York, had atthe time,” recalls current owner Jerry Coletta, Horest’s son. “But in Memphiseveryone knew what barbecue was, and people liked the pizza andstarted coming back for more.”

Though barbecue pizzas are on menus nationwide today, this Coletta’ssignature item is difficult to copy, thanks to a homemade barbecue sauceand pork that’s smoked in-house. The specialty pie helped make expansionpossible: By the late 1950s, Horest had opened up a second location, whichburned down in 1996; a new second location was opened in East Memphis in1999 and is managed by a fourth generation of Colettas. And it doesn’t hurt tohave a celebrity endorsement—Elvis Presley frequently dined at the original restaurant,so fans from around the world regularly pop in to sit at Elvis’ table andperuse the memorabilia on the walls.

To maintain consistency between locations, the restaurant makes its barbecuesauce, ravioli, meat sauce (300 gallons per week) and meatballs in a commissary,but the most important work takes place within the restaurants’ walls.“We try to get to know our customers by name,” Jerry says. “It’s one area inwhich independents can excel when competing with chains. Get out front andget to know the people who come in. Make your customers your friends. That’swhat makes the restaurant business an enjoyable experience.”