Lisa, Kristina and Jerry Coletta Interview
(Coletta’s Restaurant(Memphis, Tennessee)
If you’re in Memphis and you’re looking for pizza, there’s really only one place to go and that’s Coletta’s.
And, why not Coletta’s introduced pizza to the Memphis community in the 1950’s and was where Elvis ate his pizza!
We spoke with owner Jerry Coletta about his restaurant and his daughters, Lisa and Kristina.
Q – Since Parade Magazine named Coletta’s one of the Best places in the U.S. for pizza, how has that affected your business?
Kristina – Well, it has affected our business. We’ve had several phone calls from people out of state. We’ve had several people here in the city (Memphis) that always comment ‘We saw the article in the Parade Magazine’. But, people from out of state have been asking if we ship our BBQ Pizza? Some say they’re gonna take a trip to come and eat the BBQ Pizza here. We definitely have seen a result from the article.
Q – Coletta’s has been in business since 1923. Does that mean you are 2nd generation owners?
Lisa – We’re the 4th generation.
Kristina – Our great-grandfather started the restaurant.
Lisa – It opened in 1923 as an ice-cream parlor. In the 1950’s the soldiers were coming back from the War and that’s when my grandfather turned the emphasis over to Italian. The soldiers were coming back from the war telling him about this pizza pie. My grandfather checked into it and decided to add it to the menu. Well, no one here in the South know what pizza was. So, nobody was trying it. He said, ‘What can I do to make people try pizza?’ He didn’t know what to do. He thought and thought. He said, ‘Well, we live in the South. Everyone loves Barbeque, Pork Barbeque. I think I’ll try putting that on pizza and see what happens.’ When he did that it just really took off. That is our signature dish to this day, our BBQ Pizza.
Q – So, before your grandfather introduced pizza to Memphis, no one else was offering pizza in Memphis?
Lisa – I don’t think so.
Kristina – That’s correct. No other.
Q – That seems strange to hear!
Kristina – It does.
Lisa – You’d think the 50’s is not that long ago. I don’t think it’s long ago. (Laughs).
Q – Is there a big demand today for pizza in Memphis?
Lisa – Yes.
Q – Do you have a lot of competitors?
Lisa – Yeah, but, you know our pizza it’s different. I think it’s the best. (Laughs).
Kristina – We’re known for just piling our BBQ Pizza with BBQ pork meat.
Lisa – I’ve tested other BBQ Pizza’s at Pizza Hut or wherever and it’s totally not the same. We shred ours. We shred our meat. My Dad has a big pit at the other restaurant downstairs.
Kristina – And he slow cooks it.
Q – You two learned the restaurant business from the ground-up didn’t you?
Lisa - Yeah. I was 9 years old when I started in the restaurant business. My first job was busing tables. I would go to work with my Dad in the summer when I wasn’t in school and I loved it. I just loved going to work with my Dad. He paid me $1.00 a day and in the next year I got a raise, when I was 10, to $2.00 a day. Then when I was 16, I said, ‘O.k. Dad this dollar a day stuff is got to end. (Laughs) I want regular pay’.
Kristina – We have a brother as well and that’s how all three of us started out. We all started out busing tables as young kids. We would constantly be up at the restaurant. It was our second home. And so, they started us at a very young age in the restaurant business, and we got to see if first-hand.
Lisa – And we’re starting our kids off as well in the restaurant business.
Q – What are your titles at the restaurant today?
Kristina – Our brother Stephen is considered the General Manager.
Lisa – We don’t really have titles. We’re just partners. We were raised with you do whatever has to be done.
Kristina – We are a very close-knit family. We work together. We see each other every day. We go on vacations together. We each have one child and they’re like siblings to each other.
Lisa – It comes from being Italian. I think most Italian families are close-knit.
Kristina – And one other thing that keeps us close is that each of us brings a different aspect to the restaurant. Like my brother is in charge of Food Control and Food Quality. My sister does catering and I do the Front of the House, the managing. So, we don’t have a lot of arguments. We each have our different areas that we do so well, and we all work together. Now that’s not to say there’s not the occasional argument, but, we’re lucky in that aspect.
Q – You are lucky!
Lisa – When we first opened; this is the newest location and we’ve been here 15 years and before we opened everyone kept telling me brothers and sisters can’t run a business together. They’ll have fights and arguments right into the ground. And I met with my brother and sister. I’m the oldest. Before it opened I said, ‘Look, this is not going to happen to us’. (Laughs). I really had nothing to worry about. I guess it was just the way we were raised. We all get along great.
Q – I see Elvis used to come into Coletta’s for pizza. Was that take-out? Did he actually sit down in your restaurant and eat pizza?
Lisa – I do know this, he came in a few times. Just a few times. It was mostly Priscilla coming in to take take-out. Now, the very last time he was in, right before he died, I was 9 years old. My brother was 6 and my sister was just an infant. Dad calls the house. It was late at night. I just happened to be the one who answered the phone. My dad said, ‘Guess who’s having dinner here in the restaurant?’ I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘Elvis.’ I said, ‘Oh, my god!’ I begged my mother to take us down there so I could meet him. But, it was late at night and we live pretty far away from the restaurant.
Kristina – She was like ‘I’m not dragging all you kids out tonight.’
Q – You were too young to fully appreciate Elvis weren’t you?
Lisa – Oh, yeah. I was only nine.
Q – What makes this story so special is, we’ve always been led to believe that Elvis didn’t go out to restaurants.
Lisa – He did. Like I said it was mostly Priscilla coming in to take out take-out. He did come into the restaurant a couple of times.
Q - Mr. Coletta what do you remember about Elvis coming into your restaurant?
Jerry – He came in several times. Usually Priscilla would come in and take pizzas back to Graceland. He would always come in with an entourage. We had a room with some sliding doors that we could close off and he would have his privacy.
Q – What years would that have been?
Jerry – The early 70’s.
Q – How many times would he have visited Coletta’s?
Jerry – Oh, just 3 or 4 times, but, Priscilla was in once or twice every week, bringing pizzas to Graceland. Mainly we would send pizzas to Graceland and Col. Parker would send us a check. One time Elvis was there and he ordered ravioli and we were out. That was a very embarrassing moment. (Laughs). But, Elvis was very gracious about it. He said, ‘O.k. just give me a plate of spaghetti.’ (Laughs). He wasn’t one to fly off the handle at every little thing. He liked the BBQ Pizza. That’s usually what Priscilla would pick up and take back to Graceland.
Q – Would Elvis enter the restaurant through the front door?
Jerry – Oh, yeah. We only had one door.
Q – Would he come to the restaurant in a limousine?
Jerry – I can’t recall what he was driving. Of course he didn’t drive. I do recall he had to go to the bathroom while he was there and he had a bodyguard on each side of him.
Q – What would the reaction of people sitting in the restaurant have been, when Elvis walked into the restaurant?
Jerry – It’s not like they knew he was coming. No one rushed him or bothered him. They let him eat in peace.
Q – He would come in the evening?
Jerry – It was always in the evening, yes.
Q – When was the last time you remember seeing him in the restaurant? Shortly before he passed away?
Jerry – Yeah. I think so.
Kristina – I remember my Dad saying he wished he had kept one of the checks they had written, but they don’t have anything. You can go in there and sit in the chair Elvis sat in. You’d be surprised a lot of people do that.
Q – Besides Elvis, do you get any other celebrities through the doors at Coletta’s?
Kristina – We’ve had Sidney Poiter.
Lisa – Danny Thomas used to come in on South Parkway. Liza Minnelli’s husband. His first name is David.
Q – You ship this BBQ Pizza to people?
Kristina – We do.
Q – You make your own pasta sauce?
Kristina – We make our own meat sauce. Bobby Fley came in. Didn’t Justin Timberlake’s father? They had a birthday party for him here.
Lisa – That’s right.
Kristina – But, most of our stuff is homemade. We make our own sausage, meat sauce, dressing. So the majority of things here is home made. We make our own dough. Our own bread.
Q – Have you thought about taking your pasta sauce nation-wide?
Kristina – We’ve thought about it. (Laughs)
Lisa – All of our dressing is home made. People rave over our Thousand Island dressing. I’ve often wanted to do that (take it nation-wide).
Kristina – Well, you know, several years ago we had our lasagna and ravioli in grocery stores.
Lisa – That was before it’s time really because now you go in grocery stores and you can see all the different restaurants have a different entrée in the grocery stores. But, we did it years and years ago before that ever happened. Grocery stores were not putting us in a good spot. I don’t know where. It just wasn’t a good spot. It wasn’t eye-level. And, it just didn’t go over well. It was just local.
Official website – coletta’s.net
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