Dear Vance: What can you tell me about an Italian restaurant called Sam's Italian Villa, which stood downtown on Poplar across from Ellis Auditorium? — T.L., Memphis.
Dear T.L.: My ears perked up and my skin tingled all over when I read the word "villa" because that is a very sore point with the Lauderdales. Not too many years ago, you see, a certain architectural history group declared we could no longer declare the family mansion a "villa" and even took away our National Register listing because they claimed the rambling estate "no longer had any historical significance." Among other things, they griped about the peeling vinyl siding, the sputtering neon sign atop the roof that spelled out "L—DER-ALE," and the rows of warped 2x4s holding up the south portico. Why, they even objected to the miniature golf course Papa had set up on the front lawn, now in a sad state of decay; even the little windmill had stopped spinning.
So when I heard about another place that made a legitimate claim to the "villa" name, I was jealous. And as it turned out, I had every reason to be, because Sam's Italian Villa was indeed quite a place.
Though not for long.
Sam was Sam Sciara (pronounced "SHY-rah"), a dapper gentleman (right) who was born in Memphis in the early 1900s and attended Humes High School. He got his start in the food business by selling vegetables from the back of a truck, and in the early 1940s, when he had saved up enough money, opened Sam's Eat Shop on Front Street, across from the post office. I get the impression that Sam was a pretty shrewd fellow. Even after he opened the restaurant, he continued to sell fruits and vegetables out front, telling reporters, "If I didn't make money one way, I'd make it another." And he did make money. He and his wife, Rose, bought a nice house at 845 N. Trezevant from their profits.
In 1947, he opened a much larger establishment, called Sam's Spaghetti House, at 73 Poplar, a great location right across the street from the old Ellis Auditorium (where the Cannon Performing Arts Center stands today, for all you youngsters out there). It was this establishment where "I introduced pizza to Memphis," Sam would always tell reporters.
Then Sam ran into a string of bad luck, it seems. On a November evening in 1957, the restaurant burned to the ground. He had invested his life savings in the place. "Sam was standing out in the street," Fire and Police Commissioner Claude Armour told the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "with big tears rolling down his cheeks as he watched the fire."
But Sam persevered. He borrowed $50,000 from the bank, and by April, he was welcoming patrons to his gleaming new restaurant that stood on the ashes of the old. The new place was called Sam's Italian Villa, and boy was it fancy. A two-story affair all gussied up in marble and gold, the centerpiece was the Caesar Rotunda (below), a fountain topped with a bust of Caesar that stood in the center of the sunken dining room. All of this, noted one food critic, "was designed to make dining with Sam an event instead of just another meal."
The place was packed, day and night, and attracted such luminaries as Elvis Presley, Rita Hayworth, Danny Thomas, and John Wayne. "When you cook good food, the word gets around," bragged Sam. "When you cook bad food, the word gets around — faster!" And he knew how to cook good food, that's for sure. Lobsters were flown in daily from Maine, and steaks were marinated a full two days before being served.
But then a disaster of a different kind happened: urban renewal. City planners wanted to revamp downtown, and they decided to build the new Federal Building right where Sam had just opened his gleaming new restaurant. "Sam Sciara is sizzling mad, and frustrated, and broken-hearted," said one newspaper article, and there were lots of them describing Sam's battle with the city planners. "You dream something up, and along comes progress," he lamented to reporters. "Even if I could move across the street, it would take five years to get back my customers." He complained that nobody from City Hall had told him if, or when, he would have to move.
Well, you know how this turned out. Sam's Italian Villa was demolished to make way for the new Civic Center Plaza.
But Sam didn't give up. He bought a storefront on Perkins, across the street from Sears Laurelwood, and opened a new, smaller restaurant he called The Villa. That was in 1960. Eight years later, Sam decided to retire, but sitting at home didn't satisfy him. With his son, Pete, he transformed a little wooden cottage on Poplar Pike into Palazzino, a place many Memphians remember fondly, and a few years later opened the extremely popular restaurant Café Max. Both places have since closed, I'm sorry to say, and Sam Sciara has passed away. I have no idea when he died; I called all the Sciaras in the telephone book — all two of them — and discovered they are not related.
And here's something that's confusing. If you'd been paying attention, you'd see that father Sam and son Pete opened several Italian restaurants in town. But they are in no way connected with the Italian restaurant on Park called Pete and Sam's. That place, which has been around since the 1940s (at the Park location since 1960) was opened by an entirely different Pete and Sam — Pete Romeo and Sam Bomarito.
Dear Vance: What can you tell me about this strange old photo (below) I purchased on eBay? Who is this fellow, and where was the picture taken? — M.N., Memphis.
Dear M.N.: I can only do so much, and after scrutinizing this image for so long that my eyes crossed — more than usual, I mean — I'm still stumped by it. Let's see what you have here: a black newsvendor, wearing a rumpled shirt and tie, peers right at the camera. He seems to be sitting on, or against, a ramshackle wooden cart mounted on wheels that includes such interesting features as a cut-out duck bearing the hand-painted inscription "GOD IS GOOD TO ME," a scroll that reads "The wages of sin is death," and a chunk of wood that seems to be painted with the words "St. Peter's Baptist Church" — which is certainly an unusual name for a Baptist Church. Tucked away behind the fellow are what looks like some tattered pages from a scrapbook, and — here's the only connection that is obviously Memphis — some copies of The Commercial Appeal hanging from coat hangers. Unfortunately, I can't read the headlines well enough to tell you the dates of the papers.
Down in the lefthand corner, also dangling from a coat hanger, is a single copy of a magazine called The War Cry. But that doesn't tell me much either, since that was the official publication of the Salvation Army, and has been published in America since 1881.
But where was the photo taken? I simply have no idea. The man has parked his cart on a sidewalk before some store windows, but there's no store name visible. Look closely at the reflection in the windows, and you can see what seems to be a picket fence and a tree, but that doesn't tell you much, does it? And at the extreme left edge of the image is a portion of a sidewalk advertisement for Coca-Cola, but again, nothing definite.
It's an interesting image, all right, but all I can tell you is that it shows a man selling copies of The Commercial Appeal. I assume he had already sold out of that month's issue of Memphis magazine.