That's Italian 

From Marquette Park to High Point Pizza to your local grocery; plus, Paula Deen and the Neelys party.

If you're in the mood for Italian, head to Marquette Park for this weekend's Memphis Italian Festival. Now in its 18th year, the event is a meatball and gravy (that's "sauce" to you and me) extravaganza celebrating those of Italian-American heritage.

The festival, a fund-raiser for Holy Rosary Catholic Church, will offer plenty of Italian-inspired foods and activities, but what everybody really wants to know is who makes the best spaghetti gravy in Memphis. The gravy judging is on Saturday at 1 p.m. There will also be olive-oil tastings, a grape-stomping contest, a wine race, and chef demos. New this year is "Luigi's Little Italy," which will offer fine dining prepared by Rick Savoiri of Ciao Bella and Jason Sartain of Macaroni Grill. Seating is limited, and reservations can be made at the wine garden.

The festival runs from Thursday, May 31st, through Saturday, June 2nd, and will kick off with a mass said in Italian and led by Father William Parham at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. Gates open at 11 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $10; children 12 years and under are free, and admission is free on Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

www.memphisitalianfestival.com

For his latest venture, High Point Pizza, Spencer Hays of Movie & Pizza Company in Harbor Town has created a simple Italian getaway in the tiny building that once housed Geeker's Coffee.

While the pizza offers big taste, High Point Pizza's interior is quite modest. The ovens and kitchen take up half of the space; the other half is filled with five tables that sport red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths. When the weather is nice, the restaurant's outdoor seating becomes a hot commodity. Be prepared to invite strangers to sit at your table when space gets limited. It's okay — just pretend that that's how they do it in Italy.

The menu is simple: four salads (side, Greek, Italian, chicken), four sandwiches on a white hoagie (ham and cheese, Italian sausage, Italian, meatball), and five pizzas (Margherita, barbecue pork or chicken, Cajun chicken, four-meat, veggie) as well as a "build your own pie" option. Pizza-by-the-slice is available during lunch, and the restaurant offers beer, tea, and sodas. Guests are welcome to bring their own wine.

click to enlarge Patrick Neely, Paula Deen, and Gina Neely
  • Patrick Neely, Paula Deen, and Gina Neely

Although barely open a month, the place is packed, particularly at night, and the staff will warn you that it takes at least 30 minutes for your order to be ready. You won't regret the wait, especially if you have leftovers to enjoy for lunch the next day.

High Point Pizza, at 477 High Point Terrace, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (452-3339)

If you want to re-create Grisanti's Miss Mary's salad at home, head to your local grocery store for a bottle of the family's signature salad dressing. The Italian dressing, named after Frank Grisanti's grandmother Mary, hit the stores earlier this year. The dressing joins the Grisanti marinara and Italian meat sauces in Kroger stores in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and the Missouri Bootheel, as well as in local Schnucks and Super-Lo stores. Also in the works are two new sauces: Alfredo and Fra Diablo.

www.frankgrisanti.com

Although the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is over, the heat is still on for the Neelys of Neely's Bar-B-Que.

The local barbecue family was invited to be part of Paula Deen's Paula's Party. The Neelys will show off their favorite barbecue recipes in an episode called "Fried vs. BBQ," which will air on the Food Network on June 1st at 8 p.m. This showdown stems from Deen's remark that you have to pick a side — fried or barbecued — when it comes to Southern cooking.

For the show, Deen's sons Jamie and Bobby were joined by Patrick Neely, who was recently voted restaurateur of the year by the Memphis Restaurant Association, his wife Gina, his two brothers Anthony and Mark, and Neely's mom, Lorine.

The Neely/Deen friendship began when Jamie and Bobby featured Neely's Bar-B-Que on Road Tasted last summer.

When Paula came to Memphis for her appearance at the Mid-South Fair last September, she didn't leave town without paying a visit to Neely's. The two families had a great time when they filmed the show in Savannah, and Paula enjoyed tasting Neely's barbecue spaghetti and pork ribs.

Neely's Bar-B-Que: 670 Jefferson (521-9798); 5700 Mt. Moriah (795-4177); 2292 Metro Center, Nashville (615-251-8895)

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