Lines Are Out The Door As Mom's Italian Villa Counts Down To Closing; Ollie Parker Remembered

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The lines are out the door as the countdown continues on the closing of Mom's Italian Villa on Market Street.

The fixture has operated in an historic brick building for 54 years.

Family members said they were tired and in need of a vacation.

John Shearer in 2008 remembered Ollie Parker, the Mom who started the famed restaurant.

On March 2, Chattanoogan Ollie Parker died at age 88.

Although many Chattanoogans knew her name, countless others knew her simply as “Mom,” the owner and operator of the popular Mom’s Italian Villa on South Market Street for a number of years.

Not only was she a pioneer in female entrepreneurship, she also helped develop some highly praised and unique-tasting recipes, from spaghetti, to pizza, to chocolate mousse pie.

According to those who observed her regularly, she also had a sense of taste in dealing with people, whether they were businessmen, politicians, or those nearly living on the streets.

“My grandmother loved people,” said Randy Shuford, who now operates the restaurant with his wife, Allyson. “And she knew how to treat people. She never had a harsh word for anybody.”

Mrs. Parker had been born and reared in a small community near Crossville as one of 12 children. As a young teen-ager, she moved to the Red Bank area.

Her first business venture was running a hosiery operation just down Market Street from where Mom’s Italian Villa is now located.

“She repossessed hosiery rejects and would redo them and package and resale them,” said her daughter, Dot Shuford, the wife of former County Commissioner George Shuford.

The business was going so well that her accountant suggested she invest her money, her grandson said.

So, in the early 1960s, she purchased an already existing restaurant inside the St. John’s Hotel. She eventually sold the hosiery business to concentrate on it.

While she was at the St. John’s, her restaurant was called the Walnut Inn. Eventually, she moved across the street into the current facility at 1257 Market St., renaming it Parker’s Home Cooking.

As with the Walnut Inn, the restaurant specialized in American meat and vegetable plates as well as breakfast.

In the 1970s, she became acquainted with an entertainer named Jim Michaels from the Black Angus Restaurant off Cherokee Boulevard. She had always loved Italian food and used to enjoy eating at Darras’ Restaurant, her daughter said.

He liked that kind of food, too, so he joined her in her effort to add Italian cuisine to the menu. Along with fellow restaurant worker Mildred Culberson, they began developing some Chicago Italian and New Orleans Italian recipes.

The chocolate mousse pie, for example, originally came from one of Mr. Daniels’ friends in California, Mrs. Shuford thinks.

Mrs. Parker, who preferred to be called Mom instead of Ollie, also traveled to New Orleans, as did Mr. Michaels, in search of recipes. One they were able to develop was the muffuletta sandwich.

They also decorated the front of the restaurant with a New Orleans motif.

As a result, Mom’s Italian Villa was born. It initially also continued to offer American cuisine, but eventually began focusing strictly on Italian fare.

Mr. Michaels later left the business to pursue other opportunities, but Mrs. Parker continued to run the restaurant and make it into a unique local institution.

Her success certainly did not come without effort, however.

“She came in every day at 5 a.m. and she would not leave until 10 p.m. – and she loved it,” said Randy Shuford.

Her daughter worked there some, as did other relatives, simply to help her.

Although Mrs. Parker was a hard worker, she also had a soft heart, according to the Shufords.

Before the South Market Street and Southside areas began an economic re-birth, low-income people would regularly stay at nearby motels or frequent the Union Gospel Mission. Often they would come into her restaurant.

If they were not intoxicated, she would kindly let them come in and sit, get a cup of coffee or maybe even have some food if she could tell they genuinely were in need. As a result, she developed a positive rapport with many of them and became an encourager to them.

“She had one of the biggest hearts,” said Mr. Shuford, who worked alongside his grandmother for a number of years.

In later years, a broken hip and the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease eventually kept her from being able to run the restaurant.

At one point during her early decline, she was trying to recover and told her grandson she wanted to go home. He finally realized that home to her was the restaurant.

Until she began requiring fulltime nursing care, Gary Shuford, another grandson, would often bring her to the restaurant, where she would sit at the round table near the television set and at least feel as if she were supervising.

Now, she has a hold on people through positive memories.

“She lived a really happy life because she got to work,” said Mrs. Shuford. “She loved to work and she loved people.”

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