Summer just seems like a good time for serendipitous discoveries. On long, hot days of summer, the world slows down a bit. It’s too hot to go to fast. And when we slow down, we tend to see things that we are too busy to see the rest of the year. Or we become a bit more adventurous, taking roads less (or never!) traveled, discovering places we never knew existed.
On a recent trip to Meridian, I had some extra time on evening. A friend had told me about a place near Meridian he had heard about. It sounded interesting and I had a willing travel partner. So we took off on a drive to quaint little Quitman, Mississippi. Population 2200, give or take a few. The county seat of Clarke County. Burned during the Civil War. Birthplace of Wyatt Emory Cooper, fourth husband of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and father of newsman Anderson Cooper.
Quitman is also the location of one of the most Italian of Italian restaurants, Memmo’s Ristorante Pizzaria. It’s located on the main drag, actually, 110 Main Street, in downtown Quitman. Nothing fancy. Just a nondescript storefront on a block of older buildings. A red awning and a large sign with the restaurant name.
We walked inside and the aromas took our breath away – in a good way. It was a homey, family-style restaurant with red checked oilcloth covering the tables and Italian music playing in the background. It was fairly busy for a Thursday evening, and got even busier as the night went on. We realized early on that it was not in our best interest to be in a hurry. So we settled in with a bottle of Chianti and an appetizer of calamari. I ordered eggplant parmesan. My friend ordered paghetti pescatora with fresh Gulf shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari with a light tomato sauce. All made from scratch, in-house, to order. And it was amazing. We ended the meal with a light-as-air chocolate rum cake that was almost mousse-like in consistency.
It seems Memmo is a real person. A real Italian person. From Italy. He met and married a Mississippi girl and he opened up shop in downtown Quitman and started cooking. Folks from miles around come to eat his delicious food. Meridian is a good 30 minute drive, but a church group from Meridian was dining in the restaurant when we were there. A couple walked in just before we left and we struck up a conversation. They were retirees from Nevada who were traveling by RV and read about it. They planned their trip to arrive at Memmo’s for dinner that evening. Who knew? I’ve lived in Mississippi all my life and I’ve only been to Quitman once, for a wedding when I was in college. Now I’m planning a return trip to take my husband, and it won’t be soon enough! (By the way, Memmo has expanded and opened a second location in Laurel.)
It’s those serendipitous side trips where we discover some of the memorable places. Last year my husband and I took a weekend trip to Vicksburg and Natchez. Instead of a traditional hotel, we stayed in a cool loft apartment in the Lofts at First National near the river in Vicksburg. When it was time for dinner, we hopped on the elevator and rode up to the tenth floor to watch the sunset from 10 Rooftop Bar & Grill, an interesting restaurant on the building’s roof. They actually added a tenth story to the historic bank building to create the restaurant. It has an open-air deck that overlooks the river. The food was delicious and we enjoyed visiting with the chef/owner, Jay Parmegiani.
The next day we drove to Natchez on Highway 61, with a breakfast stop at The Tomato Place, just outside of Vicksburg. If you’ve never been there, go. Quirky doesn’t begin to describe this crazy roadside produce stand. It looks like it’s been added on to over and over again, with funky things to see everywhere you look. Inside there are a few tables and chairs, and the breakfast we ate was totally unexpected. It was a full breakfast with eggs, grits, sausage, biscuits and of course, we had sliced tomatoes -- some of the best I’d ever eaten.
The places we find when we aren’t really looking, or the places we are willing to take the time to visit because of the promise of something interesting and wonderful or funky and peculiar are often the places that are the most memorable. We love asking the locals where they eat. We’ve walked down back alleys in San Juan to eat arroz con dulce at a small home-style cafe. We’ve eaten street crepes in Paris. We’ve been to an open-air roadside restaurant on the side of a mountain in Venezuela and eaten rabbit stew. I remember all of those places and the food we ate much more than any chain restaurant.
My advice to anyone with a sense of adventure is to turn around and go back when place looks interesting. It’s how we found our favorite burger joint, The Blue Rooster, in Flora. And the Bluesberry Café in Clarksdale. I’ve met a crazy wood carver from Santa Fe’ at a roadside shop somewhere in East Texas. I turned around because he had several colorful totem poles lined up and I wanted to see what that was all about.
Get out this weekend and keep your eyes open for the unusual. I’ll be headed to a family reunion in West Monroe, Louisiana on Saturday. I wonder what I’ll find along the way.