Oxford, Mississippi

Photo: Saint Leo

This was supposed to be a Memphis trip. You traveled to the banks of the Mississippi River to visit civil right’s sites, listen to live music, and eat barbecue food. The National Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and Cozy Corner were among your first stops in the River City. But as you licked tangy BBQ sauce off your fingers, you kept hearing the name of another restaurant. It happened more than once. People were raving about it. So you had to start investigating.

It turned out that Saint Leo wasn’t even in Memphis. The Italian hot spot was 100 miles south, across the Mississippi border, in Oxford. The college town—it was named to attract the University of Mississippi—was on your eventual wish list anyway. It was supposed to have an Athens, Georgia or a Charlottesville, Virginia vibe. So you called to make a dinner reservation. They don’t accept them. Then you learned that the restaurant was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2017 Best New Restaurant of the Year. You decided to detour to Oxford anyway.

If Memphis felt like it was hip and evolving, Oxford immediately brings you back to the Deep South. Historic buildings—the Lafayette County Courthouse, Oxford City Hall, and Neilson’s Department Store (the oldest known store in the South)—surround the Square. The restored Lyric theater, Rowan Oak (William Faulkner’s former home), and Ole Miss’ stately brick buildings are nearby. While old houses with their grand columns are surrounded by huge oak trees. It isn’t until you start to look closer that you begin to see design shops, hip boutiques, one of the best independent bookstores in the country, and restaurants whose menus make you drool.

It’s finally time to eat at the place that made you drool first. Saint Leo is just steps from the Square on Jackson Avenue. Between the simple wooden tables and the wood-fired oven, which cocoons you like a blanket, you immediately feel at home when you enter the dining room. A Chartreuse Tonic, one of the seasonal cocktails, extends the warm welcome. As you peruse the menu, you glance at nearby tables for hints of what to order. Garlicky gulf shrimp with spinach and bruschetta overflowing with house-made ricotta and local honey look like good dishes to start. You order a well-priced bottle of Barolo to start breathing, as well.

After going back and forth between pasta and pizza, you decide to share both the butternut squash manicotti and the bianca pizza. The manicotti sounds like a perfect fall dish, while the pizza lets you taste all four cheeses from the cheese menu that had tempted you as appetizers. Also, though you usually don’t have room for dessert, you’re eyeing the ice cream flavors, like grilled fig and brown butter bourbon. This already feels like a meal worth traveling for.

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