Food & Drink » Food & Wine

The Family Business

At Conte's Italian Restaurant, it's all relative.



At Conte's Italian Restaurant, pictures of the New York City skyline and Frank Sinatra line the walls. Near the kitchen is a picture of a young Mike Fratello with Old Blue Eyes himself, right next to a more recent photo of the Memphis Grizzlies head coach standing beside a tall woman with light blonde hair and an easy smile.

That's Pam Conte (pronounced con-tee), the owner and operator of this 65-seat Italian restaurant tucked into 149 Madison Avenue, the former site of the Cupboard II.

The dining area also features a picture of Conte's grandmother, Rose, which hints at the family connections that permeate the restaurant and the food.

The Conte family originated in Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. They settled in Manhattan but moved to Staten Island in 1935.

The family ran a meat, produce, and grocery store called Conte's Meat Market, while Pam Conte's grandfather had a dairy farm in New Jersey. Pam Conte was always helping to prepare food.

"I've been working since I was old enough to shuck corn or pack tomatoes," she says. "I love it. It's just something that I've always enjoyed doing. It's in my blood."

When she was a senior in high school, her family bought a corner bar and grill which operated for 20 years. It was a small place with 10 tables, and it was where Conte had some of her earliest experiences working in a restaurant.

Conte's father, Salvatore, moved to Memphis in 1980 to open a restaurant called the Hearth with her cousin, Michael Pietrangell. Conte visited the city often, and when her father got sick in 1988, she moved here for good.

She operated an Italian restaurant called Clementina's (named after her aunt) in Tipton County, but in December 2005, she opened up her own place on Madison Avenue.

The family connections continue at Conte's. Pam Conte's husband, Chuck, handled all the remodeling. Her daughter, Sarah, helps run the restaurant, while her son, Anthony, is the only person besides Pam who cooks.

"My son is a natural," Conte explains. "Where I'm more traditional, he's more innovative. He's more into experimenting with different dishes."

There's a lot of work to be done each day in the kitchen. Conte whips up a pot of gravy and marinara as well as a sauce made from whole Roma tomatoes. She also makes her own Italian sausage.

"I only use the best and freshest ingredients," Conte says. "If we're out of something, we're out of something, and we make it again tomorrow."

Conte's gets its ravioli, manicotti, and stuffed shells from a Brooklyn company called Pastosa's, the same place her family bought ingredients when she was a child.

The only kind of pasta she uses for spaghetti and other dishes is De Cecca, which is made in Italy. She gets her bread locally from La Baguette.

"Sunday Morning Meatballs" are one of Conte's specialties. They earned the name years ago, when mothers and grandmothers in Italian families would make rich meatballs on Sunday morning to be added to a large pot of simmering gravy for that night's dinner.

The restaurant also features New York-style cheesecake, made by Conte's cousin's wife, Nina.

While running the business hasn't always been easy, Conte thinks she has found a culinary home.

"I love Memphis' downtown, and I think that it is going through a great resurgence," Conte says. "Every month, business has grown. Even if it's only by $50, it has grown. I would like it to grow a little faster, but we're going to be here for the long haul."

In addition to running a business five days a week, Conte also caters private parties and opens the restaurant during off days for special occasions.

"You're married to it," she says. "We're closed two days a week, but I find myself down here on one of those days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., just cleaning and ordering supplies."

And while she now calls Memphis home, Conte gets a lot of New Yorkers. "They know this is the place to eat if you grew up in an Italian family, and you want to eat like you're at your mother's house."

Conte's is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Friday, and 5 to 10 p.m. on Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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