On the Scene at the Italian Festival



As a native Memphian, I knew surprisingly little about Italian Fest before I headed over to Marquette Park last night. Although the gravy contest (which you have to enter in order to be a part of the festival) happens today, I found a lot of cooking and mixology going on for other contests.

Before I hit the row of tents, I stopped by Mama D’s Italian Ice trailer. Owner Dee Moore has become a familiar face at festivals and farmers markets around town, but this is the festival truly geared toward her authentic New York and New Jersey summer treat. It’s an Italian favorite— not too sweet, not too icy, in traditional flavors like lemon and chocolate and more exotic flavors like mango and margarita.


As I made my way over to the cooking teams, a sign that read “Stinky Gringo Margarita” caught my eye. Aside from being a not-so-nice thing to say to tourists, Stinky Gringo is a pre-mixed margarita from Milwaukee, and Wally Herrington of Delta Wholesale Liquor was nice enough to let me share in the margarita fellowship (it’s a very refreshing mix, by the way: not too sweet, not too sour.) They were also serving up samples of the Barefoot Wines, Bella Sera, and Ecoo Domani, with all proceeds going to Holy Rosary.


When I finally made it over to the tents, a number of teams were working on their submissions to the “Anything Italian” competition. The contest name speaks for itself, but the entries were as varied as could be. At the Memphiosa tent, a judging session was in progress. Three judges were seated at a table set in the tent, tasting the dish, talking to the chef, drinking the complementary wines, and after fifteen minutes, the session was over. Team leaders Albert Pope and Jennifer Miller chatted with me a little (off to the side so as not to disturb the judges) about their “Anything Italian” recipe: Beef Wellington-style filet with a mushroom demi-glaze, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto (shown here without prosciutto because it all went to the judges), and polenta.


At the Oliveus tent, decorated with grape vines cascading over trestles and a giant disco ball, another set of three judges were seated around the table. Oliveus is one of the veteran teams at the festival, this being their 19th year, and they’re the reigning champions of the gravy contest.

While the “Anything Italian” judging was going on, I talked to Carl Fristick, who filled me in on the festival’s Happy Hour Cocktail contest. Oliveus entered a summer beer called the “Yellow Submarine,” which is named so because “it sneaks up on you.” (Carl explained this last bit with more than a little compunction in his voice.) I then had the opportunity to sample team member Mike Motta and Maury Wade’s homemade wine (yet another contest in the festival), which was a very young, very refreshing Pinot Grigio, straight from the oak cask. Back in the kitchen, chef Frank Rittenhouse showed me a layered diagram of their submission to the “Anything Italian” contest: Italian spinach with a seafood lasagna made from homemade pasta, homemade alfredo sauce, artichokes, peppers, ricotta, parmesan, asiago, romano, mozzarella, provolone, and shrimp.


And the final product:


They also had skewers of bacon-wrapped artichokes (tough to beat bacon-wrapped anything) and their homemade Italian sausage.


A few tents over, I ran into Mary Wilder of the Thursday Night Italians (named after their Thursday night volleyball team, which decided to throw in the towel in favor of cooking and drinking at Italian Fest... fancy that!) I’ve actually had the fortune of attending one of Mary’s famous ravioli making parties, so I know she’s serious about her Italian, but I was delighted to find the one in charge of all the cooking and submissions for their team was 16-year-old chef, George Lamanna.


He says his dad taught him how to cook first, but he’s clearly started to make his own way in the culinary world. Each year the team chooses a region of Italy to focus on —this year they chose Calabria— and George had done his homework, telling us exactly where the region is and marveling at the lack of fish in their cuisine. (Bravo, George!) Their submission to “Anything Italian” was Farfalle pasta with grilled vegetables and a light cream sauce. Oh, and then there was this:


A raspberry tiramisu, with layers of soft ladyfingers, seedless raspberry jam, Grand Marnier, mascarpone cheese, whipped cream, and fresh raspberries.

At the Twisted Noodle tent (decorated with tile flooring and stone wishing pool outside), I found this giant table of desserts:


And learned how to make their Happy Hour Cocktail, “Afternoon Delight,” a summery blend of blackberries, lime, cucumbers, sugar, gin, club soda, and mint.

A smaller tent held the Romer Family, whose team name is, of course, Rome(r), Italy. They’ve been in the festival for 20 years, and they have the family tree painted on their tent to prove it:


Just as I was getting ready to call it a day on the blogging, I found myself by the Judge’s Tent, which is where I ran into Vickie Ranson and her sister-in-law, Vicki Ranson (seriously.) Vickie Ranson and her husband, Richard, have been in charge of the festival from its humble beginnings in the Holy Rosary Parking lot.

According to Vickie, Italian Fest began when the church’s fundraising event, Bingo, was outlawed in the state of Tennessee. With a litany of other (boring) fundraising options, church member Mario Bertagne, a second generation Italian, offered up the idea of an Italian Festival. That was 21 years ago, and the festival has grown in popularity ever since. Although Mario has since stepped down from his position at the helm of the festival, he’s still hanging around with his team, aptly named La Fondatores (“The Founders”). His brother, Joe Bertagne, has a team of his own, and though it was too late to snag a photo of their “Anything Italian” submission, his description of the Easter leg of lamb with angel hair pasta, gravy, and sautéed mushrooms made me want to kick myself for not sneaking in a taste earlier. That recipe, and the recipe for their gravy, belonged his mother, Anna, and when it comes to her cooking legacy, Joe says, “I never want to stray too far.”

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