1063 S. Parkway East Memphis, TN 38106; map); 901-948-7652; colettas.net
Pizza Style: BBQ Pizza—Coletta's claims to have invented the form
The Skinny: Memphis is known for its barbecue, not so much for its pizza. Elvis loved this stuff, if that tells you anything
Price: Large, $19; medium, $13.70; small, $8.25
Coletta's Italian Restaurant is supposedly the place where barbecue pizza was invented. It is also claims to be the oldest restaurant in Memphis (dating back to 1923), the restaurant that introduced pizza to the city in the 1950s, and also Elvis Presley's favorite pizza.
I don't doubt any of the claims.
The stout brick structure certainly looks the part. Inside, all the rooms—bar, waiting area, the "Elvis room" and smaller dinning rooms—are all connected like a rabbit warren. Everything is worn to a dull and dusty patina and doesn't look like it has changed much in years, if ever. When Coletta's first opened it was in the middle of nowhere. These days it's right off the Parkway and is surrounded by houses. Memphis has grown up around Coletta's and the pies the pizzeria serves.
The Elvis room is thus named not only because of all the images and effigies of the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" festooning the walls, but also because Presley would often dine there with his entourage. Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, but moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was 13. So, assuming the correctness of the pizza cognition theory Coletta's barbecue pizza might just have been his vision of what pizza should be, and indeed for many Memphians.
BBQ pizza comes topped with a generous layer of pork shoulder that's smoked daily at Coletta's and slathered in a tomato-based Memphis-style barbecue sauce spiked with vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and cloves. Underneath lies a layer of shredded low-moisture mozzarella and mild cheddar which tops a more typical red sauce. Both sauce and cheese are completely obfuscated by the pile of 'cue and tangy sauce.
The crust is crunchy at the cornicione and sort of soft underneath the deluge of pork and sauce. It's not very chewy—quite the opposite in fact, bordering on brittle with severe tip sag. It has a dull burnishing on the bottom and a slightly yellow hue overall. You need to fold the slice (as they do in NYC) to eat it by hand but even then it's a rather sloppy affair. The crust has a rather mild, innocuous flavor—a faint yeastiness and not much else. It has little chance against the barbecue.
The barbecue pork is not the best in town but since the town is Memphis, home to some of the best 'cue in the country, that is no slight. It's suitably tender with a smoky flavor.
Apparently when Coletta's started serving pizza, locals had no idea what it was or how to eat it. Only when they decided to top it with something a bit more familiar did the pizza take off.
There are other pizza options on the menu of course, but the BBQ is the most popular—it is listed at the top of the menu, a place usually reserved for the plain pie.
Given Coletta's 50-year history of serving pulled pork on pizza, I have to concede that it is as a legitimate topping as pineapple or bacon or avocado.