Little Italy

Chillin' At Home

With almost the entire world on some degree of a lockdown because of Covid-19, being a food blogger got a lot harder. For me, getting the best sense of what I'm eating requires dining in at a restaurant where the food is hot and fresh from the kitchen. Being that I'm a fair guy, I usually refrain from getting out take-out for the blog unless that's the only way to get food from a particular restaurant (example: Roxie's Grocery). However, given the circumstances surrounding the global coronavirus pandemic, I will have to adapt both as a blogger and in life in general. So for this phase of the blog, I will try to focus on restaurants that either do a lot of take-out or aren't (in my opinion) "dine-in friendly" as far as atmosphere goes. With that in mind, I knew the first place I had to talk about is one of my favorite take-out joints, Little Italy.

NOTE: This review might be a bit dated, for this was written before some of Memphis' restaurants (not including Little Italy) reopened under Mayor Jim Strickland's "Back to Business" plan.

For years, Little Italy has been a go-to whenever I want authentic Italian cuisine. Not to be a snob, but I haven't found a restaurant in America that matches an Italian ristorante in food quality or atmosphere that I experienced during my four years in Italy as an Air Force airman. I have been to a few places that come close (unfortunately not in Memphis) but they are not quite there. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it could be that actual Italians (as opposed to Italian-Americans) aren't running it. Hopefully in my lifetime, I will go to New York to dine in a "genuine" Italian restaurant in America, but I'll have to make do until then. Although I can't get the complete Italian experience in Memphis, I rely on restaurants like Little Italy to serve some of the best Italian food in the city.

Rigatoni Rustico from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee
Rigatoni Rustico with salad and garlic bread (all included)

One of the things that I love about Little Italy is the pasta. While it isn't on par with most restaurants in Italy, Little Italy does a very good job with what it serves. An example of this is Rigatoni Rustico, a pasta dish with chicken and Italian sausage mixed with sauteed onions and red peppers in Little Italy's signature marinara sauce. As you can see in the picture, Little Italy doesn't drown the pasta in sauce, but rather adds just enough to bolster everything in it. The rigatoni was fresh and firm (as in "al dente") that didn't seem like it came out of a box. The chicken and sausage were also good and even better with the red peppers, onions and marinara sauce. Compared to what one can find in Italy, this is a very good dish that doesn't overwhelm with sauce but rather strikes a balance that allows all the elements to flourish. Those who aren't used to this kind of pasta might find this foreign, but the Rigatoni Rustico embodies the essence of genuine Italian cuisine.

Parmigiana pizza with meatballs from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee
The white "arrow" in the middle isn't a "play" button
In addition to great pasta, Little Italy serves fabulous pizzas. I'll admit that I usually go to Aldo's Pizza Pies as a first option because of convenience (usually after having drinks either there or some other Downtown establishment), I also like to mix it up occasionally with "pies" from Little Italy. They both offer New York-style pizzas that are far superior to the Domino's and Pizza Huts of the world. One of my favorite pizzas from Little Italy is the Parmigiana Pizza with meatballs. It comes with marinara sauce and topped with meatballs (or either chicken or eggplant) and mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. Contrary to what I said about the rigatoni, it wouldn't ruin my day if I got it swimming with marinara sauce. On the "Parm" pizza, the tomato and garlic in the marinara sauce is really good and a great foundation for the rest of the pizza. The ricotta is creamy with a sharp flavor that is very good by itself and awesome with the rest of the pizza. As for everything else, I have no complaints (I'm saving that for later in this review), for everything from the soft crust to the flavorful meatballs were excellent and very enjoyable. It's because of pizzas like this that make Little Italy stand out among the many pizzerias in Memphis.

Tiramisu from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee
SIDE NOTE: Because my pizza was under fifteen dollars, I had to add something to cross the threshold for delivery. For that, I chose the tiramisu as a dessert. Little Italy's version met my expectations as a creamy and coffee-flavored dessert that nicely hit the sweet spot.

Accidental Pleasure

Little Italy had always been one of my favorite places for takeout even before the current environment surrounding Covid-19. Even when I'm out at other bars that serve great food, I get that occasional itch for Italian. For the most part, the restaurant comes through without a hitch but not during my last visit. During a past Saturday, I attempted to order the Sausage Parmigiana Sub. The lady taking my order asked "you want an Italian Sub?" I confirmed I wanted the SAUSAGE Parmigiana sub, with the emphasis on "sausage." Then the lady asked me what kind of potato chips I wanted: plain or barbecue? I clearly replied by saying "plain" potato chips (I actually would have preferred French fries but wasn't offered that option). So, what happens next?

The calzone with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee

As you can see, I didn't get the sub that I asked for. Instead, I got the Italian Sub with Lay's barbecue potato chips (I swapped the Lay's with Brim's that I will talk about later). Needless to say that I was disappointed in not getting what I ordered, feeling like Leo Getz in getting screwed. Like Leo, I wasn't driving back to get the right sub, so I resigned myself to eating what I got.
The calzone with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee
As it turns out, the Italian Sub is a really good sandwich. It has pepperoni, ham and salami bonded by quite a bit of mozzarella cheese. Also with lettuce and tomatoes, the sub is a cheesy delight that almost made me forget that it wasn't my choice. The sub comes with an olive oil-infused Italian vinaigrette that surprisingly makes the sandwich tastier. In all, the Italian Sub is a great sandwich and a nice consolation for a botched order.

SIDE NOTE: For "plain" chips I swapped the Lay's BBQ chips in my order with Brim's Classic Potato Chips. In comparison to Lay's and other major brands, Memphis-based Brim's is just as good and a greater value. When you buy a bag of Brim's, you are not only contributing to the local economy but you are also keeping employed people who are in need of a second chance. Brim's BBQ Rib ChipsSome of Brim's employees are people who had been in trouble with the law and want to get back on track with a good job and a stable life. There aren't a lot of companies that are willing to hire "troubled" people but Brim's has stepped up in a big way to help out. Brim's is a good company that I hope remains successful, especially with its BBQ Rib Chips that totally outclasses Lay's barbecue chips. I talk more about the chips on Tumblr, one of the many social media platforms (along with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) that you can follow Ken's Food Find.

Calzone vs Stromboli

I was about to end this review when I was reminded that Little Italy sells calzones and strombolis. Because I was stationed in Northern Italy, I never had a calzone that is a staple in the southern part of the country. As for the stromboli, it is a creation of Italian-Americans like the muffaletta and cioppino (they were created in Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco, respectfully and (with the exception of "N'awlins") places that I'm not familiar with). Until writing this post, I've never had a stromboli and on one hand could count the number of times I had a calzone (all from Little Italy on the recommendation from my Atlanta-based sister). Now, what is the difference between a calzone and a stromboli? A calzone is basically a pizza folded in half with the sauce, cheese and meats stuffed inside it while a stromboli consists of meats and cheese rolled up by pizza dough (kinda like a burrito). To get a sense of what both are like, I decided to get both and compare them.

The calzone with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee

To start things off, I chose the calzone that has been a go-to in the past. As you can see above, it's basically an Italian version of a turnover filled with a lot mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. At $5.25, that's all you get and additional toppings cost a dollar each. For this calzone, I chose sausage because it's my favorite meat topping at Little Italy. Unfortunately, the sausage was smothered by all the cheese in the calzone. The calzone with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, TennesseeFor someone looking for a meaty meal, this calzone wasn't it. The cheese to meat ratio seemed like it was 5 to 1, something that I wasn't looking forward to. Now this is not to say that I didn't like the calzone, especially when I dipped in marinara sauce and eaten with garlic knots. Still, the calzone seemed more like a big Hot Pocket than a pizza. I appreciate the quality that went in to it, especially the dough used to make the buttery crust that enclosed the calzone. Despite that, I probably won't order it again unless I get it loaded with enough "toppings" to make worthwhile that will cost as much as an actual pizza.

The garlic knots from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee
"SIDES" NOTE: The garlic knots are a great side item for calzones and almost everything else on Little Italy's menu. Freshly made, the knots are soft and kinda sweet even with the garlic in it. It comes with marinara sauce (one cup, despite what's depicted in the picture; the other cup came with the calzone), although the knots were so good that I didn't need it (which was a bonus given that I used a lot of it on the stromboli that I ate later). The fried calamari from Little Italy in Memphs, TennesseeEven though the knots were good, if I had craved for a meaty side instead, the fried calamari (as in squid) is not a bad option. Compared to other places that I've had it, Little Italy's version is tasty with a decent amount of crunch that's not on par with restaurants like The Majestic Grille but it's good enough to balance a really cheesy calzone. Regardless of which side/appetizer you choose from Little Italy, you'll be reasonably satisfied.

The stromboli with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, Tennessee

A day after the calzone, I switched it up in getting the stromboli. Unlike the calzone, the stromboli is leaner and more meaty. Despite being wrapped in pizza crust/bread, the stromboli felt a lot like a burrito. After taking a couple of bites, I took a picture of its inside to see what was in the stromboli. The stromboli with sausage from Little Italy in Memphs, TennesseeUnlike the calzone, it had a lot more sausage in it with just enough mozzarella cheese to make it interesting. As with about everything else I mentioned so far, it comes with a cup of marinara sauce for either dipping or pouring. I eventually opted for the latter, pouring in the sauce to make the stromboli more pizza-like. For my side, I got French fries that were okay (not that crispy) that matched up well with the stromboli and helped me finish off that cup of marinara sauce that I kept from the day before. At $5.25 that includes the sausage, the stromboli was a better value in terms of a meal that satisfied my appetite without leaving much of a mess. As far I'm concerned, the stromboli won me over, for it's a better fit for what I'm looking for, an inexpensive pastry that's meaty and filling. When I get the stromboli again, I will eat it with potato chips to get the most for my money.
Overall, Little Italy offers excellent food that is high in quality and great in value. In terms of authenticity, it's as close to Italy as one can get while living in Memphis (there are a handful of others that are just as good, such as Aldo's Pizza Pies). As much as I like the food, Little Italy has never been a place to dine in. I can't quite put my finger on it, but maybe the restaurant has more of a Sbarro-like feel to it. It's not a place that you can hang out in, but more like a store where you just come and go. Fortunately, that's not a bad thing when it serves great food and excellent (but not perfect) service.
With the "dine-in " option not appealing (and unavailable due to COVID-19), there are other ways to get grub from Little Italy. The most obvious method is calling the order in, which comes in handy when heading home after having a few drinks at a nearby bar. It typically takes between fifteen to twenty minutes for the restaurant to prepare the order so waiting is minimal most of the time. In addition, you can order online thru its website that's really easy to use, much easier than a lot of fast food apps that can be frustrating (service is the same as calling it in, but better accuracy in getting the order right). For those who prefer delivery, Little Italy covers most of Midtown and Downtown Memphis with its two restaurants in those neighborhoods (Little Italy also has a location in Bartlett although the menu and ordering process are slightly different from its sister restaurants). Even where I live that's barely within the confines of Midtown (my home is almost borderline North Memphis), Little Italy delivers hot food in a timely manner (it usually takes an hour to deliver, which is comparable to other restaurants). However you get it (including dining in which I'm not discouraging), Little Italy offers a great experience that few restaurants can match. I hope you stop by one of its restaurants to get a taste of the old country (or as close as possible for Memphis). I promise you won't regret it.

    Midtown (now called "Slice Midtown"):
    East Memphis:

Little Italy Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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