It’s all about the gravy at Memphis Italian Festival. And don’t dare call it spaghetti sauce. That’s blasphemy at this event.
“Sauce is a marinara, but when you add meat, it becomes a gravy,” explained defending Grand Champion Scott Manes, who has been the head cook of the team Mama Biondini’s for the past seven years.
The beloved festival “where everyone is Italian” will return to Marquette Park in East Memphis Thursday-Saturday.
For more than three decades, the festival and cooking contest have celebrated all things Italian in Memphis. What originated as a Holy Rosary School fundraiser in a parking lot with eight teams has grown into a full-blown festival and cooking competition with more than 40 teams competing for the title of Grand Champion.
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The event celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019. Then in 2020, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival organizers held a version of the competition in 2021, but attendance was limited to just the teams.
The festival will be back in full force this weekend, with organizers expecting the normal crowds of 15,000 to 20,000.
The Italian experience (and eats)
The family-friendly event features live music, carnival games, cornhole, a bocce tournament and even a 5K race.
And, of course, there will be lots of Italian food.
Just like at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, cooking teams cannot serve food to the general public. But don’t worry: Festival organizers have brought in some of Memphis’ top Italian restaurants.
Coletta’s and Garibaldi’s will be serving food in the general concession area that has been nicknamed “Piazza di Pasta.”
Attendees also have the option to enjoy dinner in the tented and air-conditioned comfort of Luigi’s Café, while overlooking the park and enjoying the music. Dinner will consist of a meat or veggie entrée, salad, bread and dessert for $15. Service begins at 6 p.m., and it is first come, first served (no reservations). The Italian Rebel is the featured restaurant Friday, and Pete & Sam’s will be featured Saturday.
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“We are thrilled to be a part of this event. It is a fun way to bring our take on Italian to the Memphis Italian Festival, and to let the guest have the chance to enjoy a delicious fresh cooked meal for a great cause,” said Elizabeth Valle of The Italian Rebel restaurant in Whitehaven. “This will be our third year of getting the opportunity to serve in Luigi’s Café, and we look forward to the crowd 2022 will bring.”
Lucchesi’s Ravioli & Pasta Company will host Luigi’s Market, a tradition they have done for about a decade. It’s a spot for festival-goers to shop for authentic Italian food to take home.
You can also learn some cooking tips. “I think our cooking demos are one of the coolest things we do,” said Ricky Bursi, longtime festival board member.
Free chef cooking demonstrations are held all three days in an air-conditioned tent. Presentations are made by popular restaurant chefs, as well as winners of the previous year’s gravy and “anything Italian” competitions.
And while you can’t pop into any tent to enjoy food from a competition team, attendees have the rare chance to try the gravy from a handful of the top competitors and cast a vote for the “People’s Choice” award from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
The top six cooking teams in previous year’s Spaghetti Gravy contest each enter one Spaghetti Gravy sampling that is blindly judged by festival-goers who make a donation to participate. Each donation is allocated to the gravy each tester liked the best. Once totaled, the People’s Choice is awarded to the cooking team that received the most donations.
Everything must be cooked on site. Competing teams transform their tents into fully functioning kitchens that also include a space to entertain family and friends throughout the weekend’s festivities. Refrigerators, stoves with multiple burners, lighting and work tables are just a handful of the items that will be loaded into each tent Wednesday.
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Manes and his team, Mama Biondini’s, won both the gravy and the bocce competitions last year.
“Our team has competed since 1998. Last year was our first time to win first place, but we have made the finals five of the last seven years,” Manes said. “It was a smaller event, but it was the same level of competition. We will be coming in hot this year just to prove without a doubt ours is the best gravy.”
Mama Biondini’s gravy is an authentic Italian recipe that has stood the test of time. Manes said his all-family team uses a recipe from his grandmother’s brother, Father Luke Fazi, who lived in the Ancona region of Italy.
“Our gravy has eight different vegetables in it. For the meat we use a very lean beef, Italian sausage, and our secret is a whole pork loin,” said Manes, explaining the pork loin soaks up any extra grease in the gravy. He chops the cooked pork into small pieces and then adds it back to the gravy before serving.
Like at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, entries at Memphis Italian Festival are judged twice — blind judging and onsite judging. New judges are vetted to make sure they are all business.
The winner of the spaghetti gravy cooking contest takes home the bragging rights of being Grand Champion as well as a $1,500 check.
All proceeds from the event benefit the Holy Rosary School Athletic Department.
Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.
Memphis Italian Festival
When: 4-11 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Where: Marquette Park, 4946 Alrose Ave.
Tickets: $12 Thursday and Friday; $15 Saturday. Tickets available online and at the gate. Kids 10 and under are free.