KREBS — Halfway through a plate of perfectly al dente pasta mixed with tomato sauce at Pete's Place, Sam Lovera couldn't hold back any longer.
“Man, I love spaghetti,” said the owner of Lovera's Italian Market, just a few blocks away. “Just a simple plate of pasta and sauce. It's just great.”
Joe Prichard, the third-generation owner of Pete's Place, agreed: “I eat it about every day, but I can't get enough.”
Lovera, who doesn't speak loud but with conviction, said, “It's just peasant food. Folks couldn't afford anything fancy, but if you cook the same thing over and over for 30 years, you get pretty good at it. That's all it is.”
If that's all it is, it's no surprise Pete's Place still packs them in considering they've been producing the same simple Italian favorites since 1925. Along with Isle of Capri and Roseanna's, and GiaComo's in McAlester, the success of Krebs Italian food has literally kept the tiny town on the map.
The Prichard family has kept to the adage about not trying to fix broken stuff, so little has changed in 87 years.
“There isn't anything unique about our menu,” Joe Prichard said. “What's unique is the style we use to deliver it. We serve family style.”
That means community tables, and food served in bowls or dishes with empty plates for everyone in the party. The food was never fancy and won't claim to be now: pasta, traditional red sauce derived from an old family recipe, grilled steaks and pork loin — which was a real find — fried chicken and shrimp, chicken Parmesan, raviolis, and lamb fries like you'll find at Cattlemen's, though Prichard is quick to point out that while they source the fries from the same place, those at Pete's are better.
“We cut ours a little different,” Prichard said. “I think ours are a little better.”
On the day we visited, the raviolis were being made in the kitchen.
“Ours are different than most,” Prichard explained. “We use all-purpose flour and semolina. People either love them or hate them, There's not much of a dividing line.”
Served under that same traditional red sauce, the doughy raviolis are almost dumplings. They also serve them fried, which I didn't get a chance to try but could see the promise in it. As for which side of the line I stand on the raviolis, actions speak louder than words, and when all was said and done, no raviolis remained on the table.
Salad was perfectly dressed, served with an antipasti of olives and cheese.
Legend of Pete's
Pete's is no longer just a place to eat, it's a state treasure. And like all treasure, it has its own legend. Pete's Place would not exist today if not for the coal boom of the 1870s, which drew Italian immigrants in droves from Arkansas to North Texas. Krebs was among a handful of southeastern Oklahoma towns whose population spiked during this boom.
The Piegari family left San Gregorio Magno, Italy, and settled in Krebs in 1903. Pietro, 8 at the time of the move, applied for a job in the mines at age 11. To secure employment, he had to use a more “American” name, so Pietro Piegari became Pete Prichard.
He worked a decade in the mines before a cave-in broke his leg, leaving him unable to earn. Not one to convalesce, he started brewing his own Choc beer — a local delicacy handed from Choctaw Indians to their new Italian neighbors. Like any good bar owner, Pete Prichard recognized the only way to boost sales was to add food.
In 1925, Pete Prichard made it official, converting a portion of his home into Pete's Place, serving homemade spaghetti, meatballs, ravioli and sausage, family-style, with Choc beer.
Pete Prichard eventually added salad, lamb fries, veal, fried chicken and grilled steaks. He also began making red wine to better pair with Italian dishes. Prohibition put a damper on some of the wine and beer sales, but a sturdy bathtub in the basement soon became the place where Choc was brewed, though never officially.
In 1964, Pete Prichard turned the operation over to his son Billy Joe. Bill saw the restaurant grow into an even bigger tourist attraction and begin drawing a celebrity clientele that included politicians, musicians and noted actors. Pete, meanwhile, continued hand-rolling raviolis every day until age and health wouldn't let him.
Bill Prichard put the steering wheel to Pete's Place in the hands of son Joe Prichard to run for mayor of Krebs, which he did successfully.
Joe Prichard was only a year out of college at the time, having graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1983 with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration. But Joe grew up in Pete's Place and probably had more to teach than learn in his Stillwater years.
Under Joe's guidance, the menu has expanded from the original four items to its current 17 for dinner. Choc beer, which has zigzagged in and out of the boundaries of law over the years, is now brewed on the up and up by a fourth-generation Prichard, Zach.
Krebs Brewing Co. brews a variety of beers that changes with the seasons and the whim of the brewmaster. It's served on top at the brand-new Choc Room, which opened inside Pete's Place in April. Guests can belly up to the bar and sample various beers on tap brewed just outside the window.
Joe Prichard said he serves about 100 people a day during the week, but on Saturdays the number can swell up to 800.
“If people are coming from a long way away, they're best advised to call us and make arrangements.”
Joe and Zach Prichard took me on a tour of Pete's Place on Oct. 4. The two hours we spent, could've easily turned into 10. The two Prichards imbue a sense of pride that can only be measured in how genuinely they smile as they spin yarns about their predecessors.
After some research, I found our visit came on the same date Billy Joe Prichard died in 1994. It made wonder what Bill and Pete would think of the city-block-sized bright yellow house that's become of the tiny place where Pete first started peddling Choc. Impossible to do anything more than guess, but it would be hard to be anything less than proud of one of Oklahoma's most successful restaurants and a state-of-the-art brewery preparing to take on larger distribution.
But family businesses aren't immune to disputes. Perhaps Pete and Billy Joe would have some suggestions. If they did, rest assured they'd make them over a hot plate of pasta and pitchers of cold Choc beer, because those are the only things that run thicker than blood in Krebs.
Where: 120 SW 8 Street in Krebs.
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Phone: (918) 423-2042.