The “Pizza Wars” episode of “The Food That Built America” airs again tonight on The History Channel at 9:00 CST, and it streams now on its website. The episode focuses on the rivalry between Pizza Hut and Dominos, which are now the two biggest pizza chains in the country, and have been the introduction – and even benchmark – of pizza for a great many folks. I am on the episode a couple of times. It was fun to muse about pizza in front of a camera, at times even more fun than eating it.
Pizza originated in Italy, to be sure, but it is not originally Italian. This is because pizza is specifically Neapolitan in origin. It’s from Naples, the big, chaotic and historic port city in southern Italy, and pizza actually spread more quickly throughout the U.S. than it did elsewhere in Italy, as odd as that may seem. Pizza initially traveled with the immigrants from Naples and its environs, of whom there were many to the U.S. To note, the Sicilian pizza is also fair part the pizza landscape here. Arriving later, it was derived from the sfincione served in Palermo, a type of spongy focaccia, but that’s for another tale.
A brief history of pizza in America until it become popular
One of the most important events in the gustatory history of the country seems to have begun officially in 1905 when Gennaro Lombardi, a native of Naples, opened the first licensed pizzeria in America in Manhattan’s Little Italy, Lombardi’s. He had been making versions of this strictly Neapolitan fast food at the bakery in which he worked, which was also being done elsewhere, at least in his neighborhood. The New York Tribune noted a couple of years earlier in 1903 in Little Italy that “apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie. The ‘pomidore pizza,’ or tomato pie.” These pizza pies were just the province of these Neapolitans; in Italy at the time, it was not found outside of the vicinity of Naples. “There are only two places in New York where you can get real, genuine Neapolitan pizze. One is on Spring Street and one on Grand. The rest are Americanized substitutes,” reported an informed source, “the Dago,” in a Sun piece in the summer of 1905.
These pizzas first found an audience with those recently arrived Neapolitans and quickly spread to all the Italians living in the neighborhood. Pizza has proven to be a very easy sell over the years. In the 1920s and 1930s Lombardi’s former employees, all Neapolitans, opened pizzerias in Brooklyn, East Harlem and uptown Manhattan that would be destined to become icons in their own right. But, pizzas were really an ethnic, mostly Italian, specialty until after the Second World War, even in New York City. Also in the 1920s, pizzerias were opened by Neapolitan immigrants in the Italian neighborhoods of New Haven, Connecticut, Trenton, and Boston. Philadelphia and Chicago were two of the few other cities with Neapolitan pizzaioli and pizza before the Depression.
Pizza spread throughout the country after the Second World War, as it began to be served well beyond the Italian neighborhoods. Starting and growing in areas with virtually no competition from pizzerias with Italian antecedents, several regional, national and international pizza companies got their start in the mid-1950s to 1960: Shakey’s in Sacramento in 1954, Pizza Hut in Wichita and Pizza Inn in Dallas in 1958, Little Caesar’s in suburban Detroit in 1959, and Domino’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960. Commercially made gas and electric pizza ovens, along with large mixers for the dough introduced in the mid-1950s, helped make the creation of the pizzas easier, far less dependent on a seasoned pizza-maker. American business know-how helped even more. The franchise system increased the number of branches and market presence quickly. Even if far from the best pizzas around – the pies usually featured doughier and blander crusts and lower-quality toppings – these pizza chains have been greatly enjoyed by millions over the years. Not incidentally, with tremendous insight, or luck, Pizza Hut, Dominos and Pizza Inn first opened right near colleges and universities whose enrollment grew tremendously from the 1950s on, something that these chain pizza joints rode to continued success.
An even briefer history of pizza in Italy outside of Naples
“Pizza, which was unknown in north Italy before the war” recounted cookbook author Marcella Hazan in her memoir Amacord. Pizzas was difficult to find anywhere outside of the Naples region through the 1950s. Even in southern Italy beyond the greater Naples area, it was not be found. A family friend from Reggio Calabria, the city at the toe of the boot, did not have her first pizza until she arrived in New York in the late 1950s. She said that Naples was the only place in Italy to get pizza then.
It came to those other cities with transplanted Neapolitans who traveled north to find work in the industrial boom after the war. For example, in Hazan’s northern region, Parma, a well-to-do and university city, got its first pizzeria in 1960 started by a person from Salerno, south of Naples. Though now popular throughout Italy, pizza has taken hold the most in a city closer to Naples, Rome, which has developed a couple distinctive versions. The first was pizza tonda, a round pizza with a blistered cracker-thin crust that grew out of the Neapolitan versions. Then came pizza al taglio, a long rectangular pizza without Neapolitan antecedents, which is more like a focaccia and sold mostly in take-away places. It has become synonymous with Roman pizza outside of Rome. The Eternal City also currently boasts some excellent pizzerias making version similar to those in Naples.
It is true what Carol Helotsky wrote in her book Pizza - A Global History: “Pizza went from being strictly Neapolitan to being Italian-American and then becoming Italian,” though I’d clarify, adding that it became American after Italian-American.
Brandi in Naples, the birthplace of the margherita pizza, and the home of the best margherita pizza I've ever eaten.
Some years ago, a longtime friend who is an avid cook, asked me if my family had a good recipe for meat sauce. I responded no, a little surprised with the question, as I think that we had it at home when I was a kid, though I don’t have any memories of it. And, these days, it’s not something that I make very often at all. But, meat sauce with spaghetti used to be seen on just about every Italian-themed restaurant menu in this country and is still to be found. It can be quite satisfying if done well, to be sure.
This Italian-American meat sauce is distinct from the famed and delicious ragù Bolognese that’s typically served with wide strands of freshly made pasta and originally comes from Bologna, the capital of the rich-food region of Emilia-Romagna. The main reason is that hardly any of the Italian immigrants came here from that area. Also, it’s made differently than what is called meat sauce. True ragù Bolognese was almost unknown on restaurant menus until the mid-1970s with the introduction of “Northern” Italian cooking to the U.S. that included Marcella Hazan’s inaugural cookbook. This had a terrific recipe for the dish, which gained a lot of traction among adventurous home cooks. Meat sauce is also not what Italian-Americans often call “gravy” or “Sunday gravy,” a very long-cooked sauce featuring several types of meat that comes from the Naples area.
Prompted by my friend’s query, I did some research into the origin of the Italian-American meat sauce. From what I found and as far as I can tell, it is typically just ground beef sauteed until done with a little onion or garlic, or both, and then added to a cooked tomato sauce. It is easy with tomato sauce on hand, better homemade even pulled from the freezer on a weekday night.
Something much tastier is a preparation that my brother and his wife have been making for years. Soon after it was published in 2000, my brother and I had copies of The Italian-American Cookbook by John Mariani, the longtime food and restaurant writer, and his wife Galina, a book that seemed to fit quite well how we liked to eat and cook. John Mariani happened to be part of the small group along with me on a gastronomic trip to Pavia near Milan in late 2019. I had to quickly tell him that my brother and sister-in-law were big fans Galina’s Meat Sauce (page 126-127) – as I was of their efforts – though they ended up modifying the recipe in his cookbook. He seemed quite pleased, though I couldn’t tell if he minded the desire for changes to it. Mariani mentioned that the meat sauce was entirely Galina’s creation, bay leaves weren’t part of his mother’s Neapolitan-rooted cooking, and has been a favorite of his and his sons for years. I can see why.
The adjustments that Gene and Cara made gave the sauce a little more complexity and richness. They added milk, additional dried spices – fennel, parsley and thyme – replaced the water with wine, seasoned the ground beef when it was cooking separately, omitted the sugar, and simmered the sauce for three hours instead of forty-five minutes. It was now not too unlike a ragù Bolognese, if with still the familiar Italian-American taste. You might want to give this a try when you have a few hours to cook.
Cara’s and Gene’s version of Galina’s Meat Sauce – Not the most elegant name, but I couldn’t come up with anything better.
Olive oil – 1 cup
Yellow Onions – 3, chopped
Carrots – 2, grated
Celery stalk – 1, finely chopped
Garlic cloves – 6, minced
Ground Beef – 2 pounds; alternatively, 1 pound each of ground beef and ground Italian sausage
Milk – 1 cup
Red Wine, dry – 1 cup
Peeled Tomatoes – 3 28-ounces cans
Tomato Paste – 1 6-ounce can
Bay Leaves – 3
Oregano, dried – 2 teaspoons
Fennel, dried – ¼ teaspoon
Thyme, dried – ¼ teaspoon
Parsley, dried – 1 teaspoon
Salt – 5 teaspoons
Black Pepper – 1 teaspoon
I’ve made this sauce, albeit without the fennel seeds, which I don’t usually have. It was still excellent.
It is better the next day as the Marianis mention, and it freezes very well, too.
The very well-used cookbook
The smart, smallish storefront Indian restaurant on Durham not far south of Washington has been a regular stop for me since the pandemic began. Convenient, even though I have to briefly enter the restaurant, a trip to pick up a meal is always quick, as the order is ready and the checkout is swift. The food travels very well back home to consume, much better than from most places. Surya was a regular stop for me before the pandemic began, mostly because I really enjoy the food.
I’ve really enjoyed pretty much everything there, and I’ve had, or nearly had, every entrée. After ordering it more than a few times now, I have to finally admit that my favorite preparation is the Chicken Vindaloo, which I had once again the other day and edges out their version with lamb for me. This Goan-originated dish was properly spicy, actually extremely spicy this last time – three glasses of water and a half-glass of milk were necessary to get through this lunch – but more significant was the deep flavor of the reddish-orange-colored sauce with an enjoyable brightness, richness and complexity that I could barely pause from, ladling it on the terrific long-grain rice side or scooping it up with the soft, occasionally blistered fresh naan. Studded with moist pieces of white chicken meat that are actually quite savory and cubes of soft potatoes, this is a delicious meal.
A visit to Surya, especially for the vindaloo, is one of things that helps makes these times more bearable.
700 Durham (a couple of blocks south of Washington), 77007
Many moons ago, a favorite dish among a group of friends, and seemingly a great many others, was the Cream of Poblano Soup at Nicole’s on San Felipe not too far from the Galleria where our friend was a manager. I don’t quite remember the taste, other than it was somewhat luscious, piquant and absolutely delicious, and I am one who usually doesn’t order soups. This was in the days before the Houston restaurant scene really took off – and I become a much more experienced and demanding diner – but the memory of the quality of that dish has stuck with me.
Recently at my parents and in a stroke of serendipity, I came across a recipe clipped from the Houston Chronicle from sometime in the 1990s for a recipe for “Truluck’s Cream of Poblano Soup.” The dish migrated to Truluck’s when it first opened with our friend and some of the other staff when Nicole’s shuttered by the early 1990s. Here is an adaption of that recipe, done in the style of Nicole’s. The chorizo is very important, as my friend stressed after I mentioned I had found the recipe. I made the soup last month and it was terrific, and even better as a leftover a couple of days later.
Makes 6 bowls of soups, good for starters.
Poblano Peppers – 3
Onion – 1, chopped
Carrot – ½, diced
Butter – 2 tablespoons
Flour – 2 tablespoons
Chicken Stock – 2 cups
Water – 4 cups
Half-and-Half – ¾ cup
Chorizo - 6 ounces
Cilantro – 3 tablespoons, finely chopped
Salt – 1 teaspoon
Monterey Jack Cheese – 2+ cups, shredded
Tortilla Chips – 2+ cups
I have used much better quality chorizo for this dish, Kiolbassa and Chorizo de San Manuel brands, rather than the really cheap-tasting, heartburn, etc. -inducing $1 chorizo that I have too often purchased in the past. I would recommend spending a few more dollars for the chorizo for this preparation, as I did. And, next time, as I desire more spice these days than I did in the distant past, I will add at least a couple of serrano peppers to the mix, even though it was delicious as cooked above.
OK, “magical” is too strong of a word, but this wine was really good, and good in an unexpected way, something completely different from what I had experienced with this varietal. Among the two-plus cases of wine from Italy I was shipped several months ago by a PR person whom I had met on a wine trip there some years ago was a Moscato from Sicily, Moscà from Barone Sergio. I wasn’t familiar with any Moscatos from Sicily, or the producer, but the varietal, called Moscato di Noto there, is the same Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains that is used famously in Asti and in every region in Italy under several different names.
So, the grape was the same as the well-known Moscato d’Asti, with which I had become much better acquainted a couple of years before on a trip to Piedmont that was sponsored, in part, by the Moscato d’Asti consortium. Moscato d’Asti are aromatic, lightly sparkling wines – frizzante in Italian – that courtesy of a stuck fermentation, are vinified to a low alcohol amount of alcohol, 4.5% and 6.5%. Often tasting of honeysuckle, pear, lemon, and orange, Moscato d’Asti wines are somewhat sweet, with a high amount of residual sugar, 120 to 130 g/l, which is a lot. But, due to the considerable acidity that helps makes for wines that are rather balanced, if still sweet. These wines can be terrific, a far cry from the cheap, overly sweet, unbalanced and simple replications of Moscato d’Asti from Australia, California and elsewhere in Italy.
This Sicilian Moscato from Barone Sergio was something unlike these Moscatos from Asti. Not entirely unlike, as it had flavors such as the citrus and honeysuckle recognizably Moscato-esque, but it is a still wine and one that is 13%. I found it nicely aromatic, dry, balanced, with a medium body and firm structure, and very enjoyable with food with a touch of spice. Delicious, even, and a type of wine that I would like to consume on a regular basis. Its uniqueness was another reminder of the wonderful diversity that exists among Italian wines today, a wonderful diversity of very well-made wines.
Barone Sergio Moscà is distributed by Artisanal Cellar in this country, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to get to my part of it in southeast Texas. Something that I’ll have to keep looking for.
As much as I like Goode Co. Seafood, it had been a while since I had eaten there. When picking up a weekend lunch for my parents on the west side, its location on I-10 seemed to be the right call. And, being lunch, a seafood po boy and fries seemed to be right order. Actually, we all ordered that, if each with a different po boy. Fried shrimp for me, and fried oyster and fried catfish ones for my parents. We all loved what we got.
I am big fan of shrimp po boys, that New Orleans-bred sandwich classic. The crunch of the properly fried shrimp, the succulence of good-quality shrimp – which very easy to get here – the taste of a fresh, crusty short loaf of French bread that’s fully dressed, a complement of shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, a fair amount of mayonnaise slathered on the brad and a few thin rounds of pickles a touch more texture and hint of acidity.
The excellent ones at Goode Co. Seafood are in the same vein, but just little different, a localized take. The medium-sized shrimp are butterflied before frying and just five to a sandwich, not overflowing as it other places, but not skimpy. In the finish-yourself version offered via takeout, the shrimp rest in the roll and on the side are an array of possible additions: shredded lettuce, a packet of mayonnaise, small containers of a piquant cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, pickles and another of pico de gallo in lieu of tomatoes, all house-made, of course, and then also a big wedge of lemon to squeeze on the shrimp. I opted for some tartar sauce instead of my usual, and the traditional, mayonnaise and plenty of pico de gallo. It all worked quite well together. Helping the enjoyment were some top-notch fries – not easy to find for takeout these days – skin-on, judiciously salted and crisper and tastier than most, even after a little travel.
Liking the meal so much, I had to pick up one to go again the following weekend at the address that is more convenient to me, the original one on Westpark. I resisted temptation to try something new, and a little healthier, the mesquite-grilled shrimp po boy. Deep-fried that time, too, and equally delicious.
Goode Co. Seafood
2621 Westpark (just west of Kirby), 77098, (713) 523-7154
10201 Katy Freeway (between Gessner and the Beltway), 77024, (713) 464-7933
There is no family recipe of tomato sauce – or gravy – in my immediate family. This is because my Italian heritage is limited to my great-grandfather from the Marche region in central Italy and my great-grandmother whose parents were from Tuscany and Venice. These are all areas that don’t have a tomato sauce with pasta tradition, at least the familiar ways that Italian-Americans and Americans love. So, no Riccetti family sauce.
Long having an interest in perfecting a tasty long-cooked pasta sauce recipe, I recently queried a few of my Riccetti cousins, who all live in the Chicago area. My cousin Celeste responded with her go-to recipe, one that she calls a marinara sauce. It’s cooked for just an hour, before the possible onset of any possible astringency. The result is something between the 20- to 30-minute simmered quickly cooked tomato sauces I have been cooking often in recent years and the hours-long sauce that many and many restaurants make. I have made this a couple of times now and it has been terrific, both with DOP-certified whole peeled tomatoes and the cheapest ones sold at the supermarket. The vibrancy evident in most decent quality canned tomatoes remains in the finished sauce while also having some depth and complexity. I’ve just paired the sauce with pasta so far, but Celeste mentioned that used it with veal braciole for Christmas to very good effect.
Of possible interest, the recipe has a strong Sicilian influence: the use of tomato paste, the addition of sugar, the combining of both garlic and onion at its base, and the use of oregano for something other than saucing pizza (or making a pizzaiolo sauce). Celeste’s mother, my Aunt Josephine, is Sicilian-American, so it is expected. For tomato sauces for a while, I’ve been using mostly those rooted in Naples that use fewer ingredients along with one from Marcella Hazan, but this one will be getting much more my attention going forward.
Tomatoes, peeled – 28-ounce can, crushed
Tomato paste – 6-ounce can
Water – 1 cup or so, more if desiring a thinner sauce
Onion, medium-sized – 1, finely chopped
Garlic – 3 cloves, finely chopped
Parsley, fresh – 1 teaspoon, finely chopped
Oregano, dried – 1 teaspoon
Salt – 1 teaspoon
Black pepper – ½ teaspoon
Sugar – 2 teaspoons
Olive oil – 1 tablespoon olive oil
Basil, fresh – 2 tablespoons, chopped
I made a couple of small adjustments when I’ve prepared the sauce. For years, I’ve been in the habit of cooking onions down somewhat first when these are part of a recipe. I also used a food mill to remove the stems of the tomatoes and provide a smooth consistency for the sauce.
As bad as 2020 has been concerning restaurant closures, I expected worse. Hopefully, most can hang on until things improve. Here are the ones I found most notable that could not.
There is also Dolce Vita that was long the city’s best pizzeria – in a city rather lacking in quality pizza. It’s closure was a decision by owner Marco Wiles independent of the pandemic to focus on his other two concepts, Da Marco and Poscol, as he has gotten older.
The whimsical Ants on a Log from the Atlas Diner
In recent years I’ve had fun compiling lists of the best new restaurants in Houston. I think that I’ve done a good job with them, too. But, the list for 2020 will have to wait. A combination 2020-21 list will be much more in order when it comes to pass in a year’s time. Though the pandemic slowed the introduction of interesting new restaurants, there were certainly a few fairly ambitious ones worth noting off the bat: Bludorn, from a former executive chef in Daniel Boulud’s realm who’s paired with a extremely well-resumed team; Ostia, an Americanized Italian that also has roots with a top Manhattan toque, this one Jonathon Waxman and his well-regarded Barbuto in the similar vein; Musafeer, an upscale Indian offering preparations inspired by many traditions there and another local example of fine-dining Indian fare, this one the priciest; March, part of the complex that includes Rosie Cannonball, a chef who worked at Osteria Francescana, and a uniquely upscale dining experience for the city featuring inspirations from several of the Mediterranean cuisines.
EaDo continues to grow in dining destinations. Tiny Champions from the fun folks at Nancy’s Hustle has recently opened, which should be both quite enjoyable and a much-needed expression of pizza in this quality-pizza-deprived metropolis. And, Justin Vann, formerly of the terrific wine and whisky bar and recent Covid casualty, Public Services, is seemingly aiding the effort with the team, which provides even more reason to visit.
Xin Chao, too, needs a visit sooner than later. I’ve enjoyed Christine Ha’s personal and somewhat inventive offerings downtown at the Blind Goat in downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall. Further west down Washington Avenue, Ronnie Killen opened a new spot not far from my office, consistently named Killen’s. I haven’t been to the office since early March, but it is nice to know that option exists whenever it is safe to return there. With a menu of heart-stopping local favorites, I’m certain to love the place if just the few barbecue dishes are near the caliber of the influential Pearland spot.
I’ve mostly been visiting more humble, and inexpensive and convenient, places in my daily quest for food and desire to support local eateries. Several of the new ones I have checked out have been fine, though nothing really to rave about – except just maybe Baguette & Tea for banh mi – much less include in a best newcomer list. Maybe these will improve with time and experience, as can happen.
The reason I won’t have a list is that there is no way to accurately judge – and more so, enjoy – a restaurant in the current situation, especially for me who needs to be much more careful than most. When taken away from the restaurant and eaten at home necessarily loses a good amount in transit, as there is always fair amount of time between preparation and consumption that you don’t have when dining at there. That the food is likely less than the chef’s intended temperature, and is likely suffered at least a bit from jostles of the road. It won’t be as attractive, seductive; plating in Styrofoam doesn’t really exist. Not just the taste or look of the food, but the rest of the restaurant experience is missing: the décor, the atmosphere, the buzz, the people-watching, the banter with fellow diners and staff, the inventive cocktails – my home-bartending skills certainly pale in comparison with those found at most of my favorite places Mostly, the company of your immediate dining companions, family and friends, in a suitable setting outside the home.
The great and really good new Houston restaurants of 2020 will have to wait until next year to be correctly judged. Please pick up meals from them and others, though.
Maybe not the best choice, but was enjoyable for that lunch from a newcomer.
It seems for a while now that supermarkets and big liquor stores have aggressively featured panettone: palettes of them in at least a dozen different brands and a number of sizes. Panettone is the Italian tall, dome-shaped cake that makes its appearance before Christmas. Originally from Milan, it is popular throughout much of Italy during the Christmas season, at least the lands north of Rome. Somewhat like an Italian version of fruitcake, if much tastier, it is sold throughout the world, and makes for a pleasant dessert or a semi-sweet accompaniment to coffee or something stronger.
Panettone is actually a little more versatile than you might expect. This is good to know if you end up with plenty of it left after Christmas and tired of eating it with coffee or a liqueur, tempted to toss out the remainder of the often substantially sized box. At an Italian Expo event some years ago, a chef who had worked in Milan served an amazingly simple sandwich from his restaurant’s booth. It was mascarpone slathered between a couple of slices from a panettone. It was very good, and extremely easy to replicate at home, and affordable. An inexpensive one kilo (two-pound-plus) panettone can be had for $10 or so. If good quality mascarpone is tough to find at your nearby grocers, you might substitute brie or cream cheese, though I can’t vouch that the results will be as tasty.
Another use was suggested to me by famed restaurateur Piero Selvaggio of Valentino a while back, especially for somewhat past-prime panettone. It makes the base for terrific French toast. Or, more accurately, that might be Milanese toast.
A slice of panettone at Cascina Vittoria in Certosa di Pavia last year. It was a lot better than anything that you can find here.
Michelin’s restaurant guides have provided a wonderful and reliable source of dining suggestions for me for years, mostly in Europe but also domestically, in Chicago. Though I didn’t get to employ any of the guides this year, there is something that I learned during my last trip overseas about a year ago that you should be aware when using a Michelin guide to plan a visit to an restaurant anointed with a star or more. I wish I would have known this some time ago.
A couple of years ago, my family was dined at Parizzi, reputed to be the best restaurant in Parma, and accolated with a Michelin star. That star was a reason to visit. As with all restaurants with stars, La Guide Michelin Italia gave a list of dishes. For Parizzi, it was a salad with smoked pork, veal tips, and tartare di cavallo, horse tartare. I remembered the salad as the recommended starter and ordered that instead of the tartare, then the veal tips. When visiting Michelin-starred places, I have always ordered the dishes that were named in the guide if still offered. I always assumed that these were the restaurant’s best preparations or the most highly recommended. Though I really wanted the horse tartare – a sometime-seen specialty of the area – but thought the salad was what was really advised by the guide. Only one starter could be ordered. And, I was mollified by my brother sitting next to me who ordered the tartare, saying that he would split it with me. He loved it. Quite a lot, in fact, and forwarded maybe only half a forkful.
Really, no matter, though, as my salad and the rest of the food was terrific. The meal was fantastic, overall, the best during my two week trip to Italy.
Last fall, I was on a gastronomic trip to Pavia, south of Milan. One of the fellow travelers was the longtime, acclaimed food and restaurant writer John Mariani. He mentioned a tidbit or two about the Michelin guides. Compiled by understaffed group of reviewers who were unlikely to visit an establishment more than just once: that the dishes that are listed for the starred entries are simply just the dishes that the reviewer had. These were not necessarily the restaurant’s best dishes, just the ones that were sampled, and probably enjoyed.
It would have been nice to know that – I find the conveyance of the information in the Michelin guides about particular places as rather parsimonious and even Delphic – and in Parma I could have had a full order of delicious horse tartare all to myself.
The tortelli d'erbette at Parizzi with plenty of grated Parmigiano
The quality of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Houston has grown dramatically since I started opining about food here nearly two decades ago, as those communities have grown and the general dining public has become more knowledgeable, appreciative, and demanding of south Asian cuisines. One of my favorites for Indian fare and a fairly frequent stop for takeaway these days is Surya, a small, minimalist spot located in a small space on Durham a couple of blocks south of Washington. With a concise menu of mostly familiar northern Indian dishes presented attractively and prepared even more enticingly all for a fair price, it is easy to like. One item is indicative of the caliber of the cooking, and accompanies every entrée, the side of rice. The high-quality, long-grained and inherently fragrant and a bit nutty basmati rice at Surya is cooked fairly quickly to an al dente texture with cinnamon and bay leaves and then some saffron, the last giving it streaks of yellow. The resulting rice, grains properly distinct and topped with a few peas, is a perfect pairing to the curries, delightful in its own right, and probably the best Indian-style rice I have ever eaten. It’s just one reason to visit Surya.
700 Durham (two blocks south of Washington), 77007
Yesterday evening, as part of the Week of Italian Cuisine, a worldwide program of the Italian government for promoting Italian cuisine and food products, the Italian consulate in Houston hosted a virtual dinner to honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Pellegrino Artusi, the author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. First published in 1891, a scant two decades after the country of Italy was fully unified, Arusi’s work has resonated as “the symbol of Italian cuisine” – if mostly featuring the cooking of Tuscany and Romagna, with a number of regions completely ignored including most of the South. It was a start to quantify and celebrate some of the amazing diversity and quality found in the disparate cuisines of Italy. That Artusi’s work is still cherished by many Italian cooks to this day and taught in cooking schools there was quite impressive to learn from the event.
The virtual dinner was created by Amalfi restaurant, which serves some of the very best Italian food in the state of Texas. Chef and owner Giancarlo Ferrara has long done wonderful work cooking dishes both rooted in his native Salerno area south of Naples, and those from other cuisines he has cooked over the years. Ferrara and team did a terrific job with the several courses, a difficult task for roughly thirty dinners to be cooked and packed then eaten several hours and at another site after preparation and delivery. Amalfi’s dishes ranged from Gnocchi alla Romana, Vitello Tonnato with sides of roast vegetables, and a dessert of Apple Strudel were the courses. Apple Strudel in Italy? Yes, it is actually popular in Friuli near the northeastern edge of Italy, which was once under the control of the Austrian Empire, and there are plentiful apples.
The strudel was excellent last night, featuring a delicate crust, tender and flavor apples and nicely complemented with small sides of caramel and whipped cream. I couldn’t help but quickly finishing it though I thought I was fun from the previous courses. Below is the recipe from Artusi, some previous pastry skills are helpful. Amalfi also seemingly sauteed the apple slices and added pine nuts for its version, which worked quite well.
Grande Strudel di Mele [Great Apple Strudel]
For the pastry dough:
Flour – 250 grams
Butter – About the size of a walnut
Egg – 1
Salt – Pinch
For the filling:
Apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced – 500 grams
Butter, melted – 100 grams, plus some more for brushing the dough.
Sugar – 85 grams
Currants, dried – 85 grams
Lemon zest – 1 lemon
Cinnamon, ground – 2 or 3 pinches
Adapted from Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino.
The famed, nearly namesake dish of Original Joe’s in San Francisco can be thought of an Italian-American take on the frittata. My father called it the frittata when he lived in San Francisco in the 1960s and frequented the restaurant. The popularity of this dish has remained regional for some reason, though it is very versatile, working well for breakfast, lunch and dinner and reputedly is welcome when suffering from a hangover, plus pairing well with a cold light beer for any of those meals.
It’s easy to make at home and quite tasty, if one of the ugliest Italian-American dishes around.
Olive oil – 2 tablespoons
Onion – ⅔ cup, chopped
Ground beef, chuck – ½ pound
Spinach, frozen – ¾ cup, thawed, somewhat dried, and finely chopped
Oregano, dried – ⅛ teaspoon
Basil, dried – ⅛ teaspoon
Salt – to taste
Black pepper – to taste
Eggs – 3
Parmigiano-Reggiano – ¼ cup, grated
1. Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion and cook over medium-high heat, stirring from time to time, until it just starts to brown.
2. Add the meat, stirring, until no longer pink.
3. Add the spinach to the pan.
4. Add the oregano, basil, salt and pepper.
5. Break the eggs into a bowl and mix well. Add to the skillet and scramble with the beef mixture.
6. When eggs are cook, remove from heat.
7. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Option – Sauté sliced cremini mushrooms in butter or olive oil to adorn the dish, similar to what is done at the restaurant these days.
The as it is at Original Joe's, which is housed at the once longtime home of Fior d'Italia. Photo by Cullen328 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78734433
Mike Riccetti is a longtime Houston-based food writer and former editor for Zagat, and not incidentally the author of three editions of Houston Dining on the Cheap.