1884 – The Houston Directory published for 1884-1885 lists grocers with names like Fenno, Manno, Maretti and Roco. Alexander Bergamini – the owner of the Casino saloon at 72 Congress – is, appropriately, a New Orleans native. There is also a restaurant named Delmonico; it’s not Italian, but rather named after the famous New York establishment.
1890s – Veal, popular with Italians and also central Europeans, is a fairly common item in Houston’s many German-owned meat markets in the late 19th century, but eventually became scarce. Years later, restaurateurs Johnny Carrabba and Frankie Mandola don’t recall ever having it at home while growing up here.
1905 – Carrabba’s Chicken “Bryan Texas” is the most popular dish across the entire chain, and named after Bryan, 100 miles north of Houston. An Italian emigration official, Adolfo Rossi, reported that 2,500 Sicilian immigrants are working the land there in 1905. Along with two in New Jersey, it is “perhaps the largest Italian agricultural community in the United States” according to a later government report. Initially, Sicilians from different villages settled on either sides of the Brazos River, an example of campanilismo – the extreme provincialism – of most Italians at the time.
1906 – A restaurant called IWW French and Italian Restaurant opens downtown at 702 Preston.
1911 – Galveston’s oldest restaurant, Gaido’s, opens in 1911. It is named after the founding Sicilian family that still owns and operates it. It is not an Italian restaurant, though.
1913 – Houston has two pasta factories: Houston Macaroni Manufacturing Co. and Magnolia Macaroni Manufacturing & Co.
1915 – An immigrant from Sicily, Joe Grasso, pioneers the Galveston shrimping industry. Through the 1920s he sold most of it as bait as virtually no locals ate shrimp then.
1920 – Houston is home to Chinese and Japanese restaurants, but seemingly no Italian restaurant.
1930 – Houston’s first spaghetti house – and seemingly the first full-service, fully Italian restaurant – opens, Del Monico’s.
1944 – Like Gaido’s in Galveston, Massa’s in downtown Houston – whose run lasts over seventy years – is also a seafood restaurant rather than an Italian one.
1948 – On Park Place an inexpensive Italian restaurant called Big Humphrey’s opens. It is named after owner Joe Vitale’s professional wrestling persona. It later moves to Pearland and is open today.
1948 – Along with her husband Mama Ninfa – later the instigator of the nationwide fajita craze – opens a tortilla and pizza dough factory on Navigation east of downtown. The Italian dough part might not have been a surprise since her husband was an Italian-American from the northeast. Much later her offspring open Laurenzo's Italian Bar and Grille that lasts just three months and Bambolino's, a drive-through slice place, one of which still remains on Westheimer.
1950 – Frank Sinatra’s scandalous (i.e. adulterous) affair with Ava Gardner is confirmed for the nation in late January at Italian restaurant in Houston, Vincent’s Sorrento. Sinatra is in town for a several week gig at the Shamrock Hotel. A guest of Mayor Oscar Holcombe at the restaurant – whose proprietor is a Vallone – Sinatra accosts a photographer from the Houston Post who is about to capture the couple on film.
1953 – Matranga’s opens on Irvington north of downtown. It is an intimate spot with a garrulous, oft-crooning owner, Joe Matranga, who “was a character,” remembered Johnny Carrabba. It quickly becomes the favorite Italian for most Houstonians, and carries on for over 30 years, known for dishes with plenty of “simmering tomato sauce and garlic – lots of garlic” that resonated with customers. Matranga once admitted to a reporter that his sauce contained “onion and garlic and olive oil and salt, pepper and basil” along with tomato paste and was simmered for eight hours.
1953 – In November of that year, the Sacred Heart Society of West Little York, Roman Catholic men’s group founded by Sicilian immigrants from in and around Palermo, begins its tradition of a Thursday spaghetti lunch that is inexpensive and open to the public at its home in Whitney Hall on Airline just north of Crosstimbers. With the lunches remaining popular today, the meat balls and tomato sauce still follow the same recipes as when the lunches began. The fresh Italian sausage is made by Society members.
1955 – Pizza finally comes to Houston with opening of Valian’s in July. The reason it took so long is that Houston lacked a critical mass of Neapolitan immigrants that were found in New York, New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, each of which had pizza for decades. There are a couple of other contenders for the first pizza place in Houston, but it was certainly Valian’s that made it popular and is remembered as the local pizza pioneer. Near the Shamrock Hotel, the owner of Valian’s – like most new owners capitalizing on the exploding taste for pizza across the country – is not Italian. Armenian-American. The restaurant also serves barbecue and fried chicken.
1950s – The most popular place for imported Italian specialties – and about the only one – is Trapolino Import Co. Started by Frank Trapolino, a native of Bisaquino near Corleone in western Sicily. He had previously worked at the Houston Macaroni Co.
1960 – Pino’s opens at 3000 Cullen near the University of Houston. It is owned by Pino Farinola from coastal Brindisi in southwestern Italy and his wife. The restaurant is an old house and seats about 50.
1965 – Tony Vallone’s Tony’s opens as a casual Italian restaurant, known at the time as a spaghetti house, on Sage Road near where the Galleria would be constructed in a few years. It is later described as, “a place that was fun to visit, with good food and drink, dancing….” Within a few years it would attract the well-to-do and
1969 – Near the eastern edge of Westheimer in January, Michelangelo opens. Maybe somewhat exotic at first, it continued in business for over four decades later, known for its comfortable Italian-American fare and vaguely romantic setting.
1969 – The April 19 issue of Billboard reports, “Tony Bennett Spaghetti House…the first of the restaurants is scheduled to open in Houston in early August. Five additional units will open in the same city before the end of the year, with dozens more planned in other cities for early 1970.” At least one did open, briefly, in Town & Country where, “the food was…was very bland,” recalled a rare patron. Lasting longer is, “Benedetto’s, Texas State Hotel, 720 Fannin…a supper club that features an Italian feast, cheek-to-cheek dance music and name Vegas acts,” run by the singer’s older brother, John.
The songs of the popular Italian-American singers interpreting the Great American Songbook after the Second World War are a requisite part of the ambiance of Italian-themed restaurants in this country. From that group, oddly, more than Tony Bennett had ties to the city. Vic Damone lived here for years after marrying an oil heiress, and two of three of Frank Sinatra’s kids were married to Houstonians (at least briefly). Nancy Sinatra married singer Tommy Sands – who attended Lanier Junior High and then Lamar – in 1960. Frank Sinatra, Jr. married a Houston-area lawyer in 1998. Plus, one of Dean Martin’s very best songs is his 1965 recording of “Houston.”
1970 – As the city moves westward, Pino’s follows. It moves to Hilcroft and Westheimer. Its success allows it to eventually grow to four times the capacity of the original.
1971 – Antonio’s Flying Pizza opens in 1971 by Sicilian immigrants serving pizza and assertive Italian-American red sauce classics, and proving that this formula with competent hands in the kitchen still works well after 40-plus years.
1974 – In their November issue, Texas Monthly reports that "Tony's [is]our nomination for the city's best restaurant… [with] trout Veronique… Chauteaubriand…. Souffle" as it advertises itself as serving the "Poetry of French Food." Vallone's heart seems to remain with the vibrant culinary verse of Naples and environs, though.
1975 – Cajoled by Houston socialite Maxine Van Dusen, Sergio Ballatori, whose family had run a restaurant in Rome between the main train station and the Trevi Fountain for four decades, moves to the Bayou City to open Ballatori’s at 4215 Leeland in November in a recently occupied bank building east of downtown. Aptly aided by his wife, five children and parents, Ballatori features Roman and Italian dishes like saltimbocca alla Romana, the fresh pasta tonnarelli alla carbonara, and risotto alla Milanese along with sought-after tables set inside a spacious steel bank vault.
1976 – In January Star Pizza fires up its pizza oven for the first time. Its thick-crust pizzas – not really the Chicago-style deep dish as advertised – are arguably the best in the city at the time, and quickly become a favorite with the college-age customers.
1976 – Jason’s Deli – founded in Beaumont, Texas in 1976 by a Sicilian-American, Joe Tortorice – eventually includes over fifteen Houston area locations. A noticeable part of its success is due to its version of the muffaletta, the sandwich invented in the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1906. The mufffaletta takes its name from a somewhat unusual, dense type of loaf that originated in Piano degli Albanesi, a town about a dozen miles from Palermo and home to a large ethnic Albanian community.
1977 – Nash D’Amico – who had recently run an Italian restaurant in Huntsville, and helped significantly by his cousin Damian Mandola – opens “something new and exciting for Houston,” D’Amico’s at 2407 Westheimer east of Kirby. It is known for dishes like frutti di mare salad, fried calamari, and tortellini in a cream sauce. Several years later, still “one of the busiest restaurants in Houston,” Texas Monthly describes it as “the first sumptuous Italian restaurant in Texas.”
1977 – In a small house on W. Dallas – a few blocks west of an area once rife with Italian grocers – Vincent Mandola opens Nino’s, which will grow into a two-block compound over the years. Greatly inspired by the cooking of their mother, Grace, the three Mandola brothers, Vincent, Tony and Damian, will go on to open many of Houston’s most popular restaurants: Nino’s (Vincent), Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen (Tony), Damian’s (Damian), Carrabba’s (Damian), Vincent’s (Vincent), Pesce (Damian) and Pronto (Vincent).
1978 – Destined to become a favorite of astronauts and other NASA personnel, Frenchie’s in a dumpy strip center in Clear Lake opens by the Camera brothers from the island of Capri. Though misleading, the owners decide to keep the name of the previous establishment. Its counter service at lunch – and usually packed – while full service in the evening.
1978 – The faccia di vecchia dish served at Mandola’s Deli that opens near the University of Houston takes its name from its likeness to the gnarled face of an old woman. It is a version of the sfincione, a focaccia-esque dish from the Palermo area, the progenitor of the square Sicilian pizza.
1981 – Carmelo’s opens on Memorial near Dairy Ashford in west Houston. Carmelo Mauro, a native of the beautiful resort town of Taormina in Sicily, brings Continental-inflected and well-executed Italian-American dishes that quickly become a hit.
1982 – In the March issue of Texas Monthly is an article about Italian dining in Texas. It lists D’Amico’s and Villani at 2907 West Alabama as two of the three best Italian restaurants in the state. The reviewer thought important to add that “it seems that Dallas doesn’t need any more Italian restaurants, it just needs a few good Italian cooks.”
1982 – Sonny Bono – an Italian-American singer like Tony Bennett, if without the talent – opens an Italian restaurant called Bono’s on Woodway between Post Oak and Sage. A branch of his West Hollywood original, it lasts for several years.
1982 – In the fall of this year Carlo Molinaro, a native of Verona, starts a restaurant called La Trattoria on Westheimer just east of Voss. Serving broadly northern Italian trattoria classics along with a few American-friendly items, the restaurant is maddeningly inconsistent until its close at the end of 2010. Delighting regular patrons – including many ex-pats from Italy – it is too often indifferent in terms of both cooking and service.
1982 – Achille Epifani, originally from Taranto in the heel of Italy’s boot, opens Achille’s on Memorial between Wilcrest and Kirkwood. Having once cooked at the famed Giambelli’s on 50th in Manhattan – the first to have broken the $10 mark for a pasta dish in the country – he brings a customer-pleasing sense to his usually full-flavored preparations. It remains a neighborhood favorite for over fifteen years before Epifani decides to down-scale to a fast-casual operation and move west (to Eldgridge).
1983 – In the fall, John Flowers, originally from the Chicago area, opens Kenneally’s Irish Pub on Shepherd north of Westheimer. It, surprisingly, serves pizza, excellent pizza – thin-crust and vaguely Neapolitan. This was the original type of pizza served in Chicago, well before the advent of the deep-dish. Its pizza-maker trained at Nick & Vito’s in southwestern Chicago, one of the remaining bastions of this style.
1984 – Tony Mandola opens the self-named Gulf Coast Kitchen, his second restaurant at 1602 Shepherd. In early 1988 it moves to the River Oaks Shopping Center on West Gray. Best described as a regional seafood restaurant, it does serve some unique and popular items that combine Italian-American cooking with regional ingredients and flavors.
1985 – In their April issue, Texas Monthly notes that, “Joe Matranga, Owner of Texas’ Best Spaghetti Joint, gives out free postcards of himself as a valiant Greek warrior impaled on a bloody spear,” in awarding it the Best Restaurant Postcard.
1985 – On Smith Street in what would be called Midtown, Damian, Frankie and Vincent Mandola along with Ciro Lampasas and Johnny Carrabba, Sr. open Damian’s in the fall. It is soon to become one of Houston’s best-loved restaurants.
1986 – Ciro Lampasas opens his eponymous restaurant, Ciro’s, on the north side of I-10 at Campbell that becomes a Spring Branch favorite.
1986 – Aldo Cantania opens La Strada on a dicey stretch of Westheimer in Montrose. The California-style Italian food never draws raves, but its wild Sunday brunch becomes an institution. A second location opens in 1996 in the Galleria area. A fire shutters the original in 2002. It reopens in 2004, but never regained its former popularity. Both are closed by spring 2009.
1986 – With proprietors Damian Mandola and his nephew Johnny Carrabba, Carrabba’s opens in the site of a former adult bookstore on Kirby north of Richmond in December. The most expensive item on the menu is $9.
1987 – Backstreet Café’s Tracy Vaught invests in Prego, a failing restaurant in the Rice Village. It was one of the scores of restaurants nationwide that had used Wolfgang Puck’s Spago as its inspiration. The next year it becomes Italian-themed, more competent, and a favorite of the nearby soon-to-be-booming West University and Southampton neighborhoods.
1988 – In January, due to the phenomenal success of its Kirby original in the past year, Carrabba’s opens a second location near Briargrove on Voss near San Felipe.
1988 – Augie Vasquez, a native of Argentina who had worked with Nash D’Amico, opens Augie’s at 5901 Westheimer at Fountain View. Drawing on his Italian heritage and restaurant experience, he serves dishes found infrequently in Houston, including some of the over thirty pastas and an excellent version of mozzarella in carozza dished from an open kitchen. Though the Chronicle’s review noted that “this is one of those rare Italian restaurants where the meat and fish dishes rival the pastas,” the restaurant does not last but a couple of years.
1988 – The November issue of Texas Monthly raves about Damian’s grilled quail on polenta and its “fettuccine in Alfredo sauce adorned with dandelions… [with] moist grilled boned chicken breast.” It garners two stars (out of three) making it one of the top seven restaurants in the state according to the magazine.
1989 – Tony Vallone opens Neapolitan-spiced Grotto in January. The food is excellent; not really authentic, but the execution and ingredients are top-notch. The flavors are properly distinct and vibrant, Italian rather than typically Italian-American. The scene rivals the food. Grotto is named one of the top new restaurants in the country by Esquire magazine in 1990.
1991 – On Lovett just off Montrose, Lynette Hawkins opens La Mora, occupying the spot of another Italian restaurant, Villa Borghese. Hawkins had lived in Florence and La Mora is the first of the area’s first Tuscan-themed restaurants that proves to strike a welcome cord among Houston diners.
1991 – Pino Luongo, the New York restaurateur that helped introduce and popularize Tuscan food in this country beginning in the 1980s, opens a restaurant in the Galleria area in August. Texas Monthly wrote a few months later that, “the most sophisticated Houston Tuscan restaurant is the largely undiscovered Piccola Cucina.” Unfortunately, it remained that way and shuttered after a not-too-long tenure.
1991 – Tony Vallone opens La Griglia on West Gray just east of River Oaks in the fall. Esquire names it a best new restaurant in the country soon after opening. Less Neapolitan and maybe less Italian than his Grotto, it is similarly boisterous and stylishly casual, and quickly becomes a place for socialites and politicians. The restaurant remarkably remains so, two decades, and a change of ownership later.
1992 – In January an unpretentious spot dedicated to well-prepared Neapolitan style pasta dishes and somewhat odd, but popular, baked casserole creations opens a corner of the Pennzoil Building downtown. Called Buca di Bacco until the chain Buca di Beppe paid owner Vittorio Preteroti, a native of Capri and related to the family that runs Frenchie’s, to change. So, it has been known as Perbacco for years.
1992 – The first area Romano’s Macaroni Grill from Brinker International opens at 5802 Westheimer and is a hit. The very quaffable jug wines sold on the honor is a big reason. That original location is still open today. The chain began in Leon Springs, outside of San Antonio, in 1988.
1992 – In December two chefs from the famed Cipriani Hotel in Venice open Torcello at 2300 Westheimer, east of Kirby. Taking the name of the island where the hotel is located, its Venetian-inspired cuisine – including Harry’s Bar classics – is some of the very best Italian food that has ever been served in Houston, and its interior wins a local design award. The restaurant lasts for about a year-and-a-half, closing in 1994. It could be the address as Armando's, Dish, Two Chefs Bistro, and Beso – to name most of the ones which followed, each having abbreviated tenures.
1993 – In April Outback Steakhouse purchased a 50% stake in the cash flows of the two Carrabba's restaurants and entered into a 50-50 joint venture with the founders, Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola, to develop new locations. Houston’s version of Italian-American food and hospitality is poised to spread nationally. From soon after this, as most Houston restaurant-goers know, but it bears mentioning, the first two Carrabba’s locations – now just owned by Johnny Carrabba and family – are much better than the nationwide Carrabba’s Grill outposts.
1993 – Del Vecchio Foods is founded in Houston and produces a line of fresh Italian sausages that can be found at Spec’s and not enough other local outlets.
1994 – Anthony’s reopens at 4007 Westheimer in Highland Village (where Smith & Wollensky now stands), though it is not as Italian as it once was. The oft-decadent Italian-scented veal dishes remain excellent, though.
1994 – Using a far cheaper and less competent designer than Anthony’s – the odd Il Dio di Vin’ opens on the 7600 block of the Katy Freeway. The stuccoed interior is meant to resemble a grotto setting, but harkens more to the caves described in Christ Stopped at Eboli. The menu is entirely in some southern Italian dialect – Neapolitan, I believe – and the food is a mix of Italian-American and Neapolitan dishes done a little differently. The wine is inexpensive; the food is moderately priced, robustly flavored and usually terrific, especially the pasta dishes.
1994 – Nearby, also on the Katy Freeway, Tony Mandola's Family Table. It served giant Italian-American dishes meant for several, and meant to be like “going to grandma's house for Sunday dinner,” provided she was first- or second-generation southern Italian or Sicilian. The concept did not work for Houston, and it changed into another Blue Oyster Bar, which remained until the freeway expansion chased it north.
1994 – If not quite new, at least renewed, Anthony’s is named a top new restaurant in the country by Esquire magazine in October.
1995 – In January Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola purchased Outback’s shares in the original two Carrabba’s and modified the terms of the expansion agreement. The numerous Carrabba-named outlets grow to over 230 during the next fifteen years while the two initial locations remain amazingly popular.
1996 – Thai-born Somchai Rapesak who had cooked for La Strada for nearly a decade opens Crostini in a small house on Shepherd north of Westheimer early in the year. It grows to incorporate the then-trendy Southwestern ingredients and Thai flavors into American Italian cooking that works quite well. The restaurant has a successful dozen year run.
1996 – In March, two local Italian restaurant stars, Damian Mandola (Damian’s, Carrabba’s) and Lynette Hawkins (La Mora, Giacomo’s), marry, though the union doesn’t last.
1996 – Deep in the heat and humidity of August Arcodoro opens. It quickly becomes regarded as one of the best Sardinian-focused restaurant in the country (not that there are too many). Its Seadas Al Miele dessert – puff pastry filled with sweetened cheese, fried and drizzled with bitter honey – is “perhaps the oldest dessert in the world” according to an Italian food authority.
1996 – Villa Capri in Clear Lake – run by the family that owns nearby Frenchie’s – hosts the Italian head of state, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.
1997 – In an April 11 review in the Houston Chronicle, Alex Truex writes, “Houston is blessed, but also cursed, by its plethora of upscale Italian restaurants,” proving definitively that he is no Robb Walsh or Alison Cook.
1997 – The restaurant with a bank vault run by a family from Rome, Ballatori’s, closes after a two decade run.
1998 – In April the Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” pokes fun at the name of the Houston restaurant Crapitto’s. It is the last name of the owner, by the way.
1998 – In the summer of 1998 Aldo El Sharif of the extravagant Aldo's – along with Marco Wiles – opens a wine bar called Osteria D'Aldo at 301 Main downtown.
1998 – With talented Alberto Baffoni a native of the Marche in central Italy manning the kitchen, Simposio opens on Richmond and Chimney Rock. It is named as one of the top new restaurants in the country by Esquire that fall, being praised by bringing to Houston “authentic Italian cooking.”
1999 – In July of 1999 the Houston Chronicle lauds La Griglia in a review, as “Marco Wiles brings glory back to the kitchen.” It is planned as a short time gig.
1999 – Arcodoro is awarded three stars out of four by famed Italian journalist Luigi Veronelli and his team in the The Best Italian Restaurants in America. Barely more than twenty other Italian restaurants in the country were rated as high.
1999 – Also that year, another Italian publication, the magazine La Cucina Italiana has a feature article about Tony Vallone citing him as one of the Southwest's best-known Italian-food gurus.
2000 –In January divino on West Alabama near Dunlavy opens. Though as much a wine bar at first – and a place with intelligently chosen and well-priced wines – it can probably lay claim to being Houston’s first trattoria. It serves basic, proficient cooking that aims for true Italian sensibilities, inspired from Emilia-Romagna.
2000 – In March Marco Wiles – who had worked locally for Tony Vallone, Antonio Mingalone and Aldo El Sharif – opens Da Marco, which sports an unusual all-Italian wine list, and is to become the most lauded Italian restaurant in Houston’s dining history.
2000 – Both Tony Vallone for Tony’s, and Alberto Baffoni of Simposio have recipes featured in John Mariani’s The Italian-American Cookbook published in 2000 that highlighted Italian-American standards and broadly Italian dishes from chefs like Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Ming Tsai. Vallone’s recipe is Capellini with Calamari and Shrimp (page 146); Baffoni’s is Potato Gnocchi with Wild Mushroom Ragù (page 196), “one of his masterful dishes” according to the author. Future Houston restaurateur Piero Selvaggio also has a recipe, Risotto with Corn (page 217).
2001 – In January the restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel downtown with talented Tim Keating heading the kitchen is rechristened Quattro, a contemporary Italian restaurant. Keating’s recent turn at the Four Seasons property in Milan makes this one of the most authentic Italian kitchens in the city.
2001 – Damian Mandola and Johnny Carrabba were asked to host the fourth season of the nationally syndicated PBS series “Cucina Amore.” It spawns the cookbook, Ciao Y’All, possibly the closest tome that describes the Italian-themed cooking here. The hosts’ ebullient and irreverent style are such a hit they film two additional series featuring the cooking of Sicily and Tuscany – and companion cookbooks – in 2003 and 2004.
2001 – Just a year after it opens, talented sommelier Antonio Gianola joins Da Marco. He expands and greatly improves the all-Italian wine list to include a diverse, complementary and intriguing array of finds that help make the restaurant even more commendable. Gianola later goes on to Catalan as one of the opening partners helping to turn that into one of the city’s most exciting restaurants.
2001 – Nino’s (and Vincent’s, Grappino di Nino and later Pronto) Vincent Mandola is featured preparing his Veal Vincent on “Food Finds” on the Food Network.
2002 – Arcodoro’s Ravioli Arcodoro wins an international ravioli competition. Remaining on the menu throughout the restaurant’s tenure, these are good-sized ravioli filled with minced shrimps and scallops and wine must and finished with a flavorful seafood reduction.
2003 – Formerly just a wholesaler and a gelato maker to area restaurants, Nundini’s on N. Shepherd become known also as a retail import shop, sandwich purveyor and Houston’s first notable outlet for gelato and sorbetto.
2003 – In November Tilman Fertitta’s Landry Group purchases La Griglia and the two Grotto restaurants from Tony Vallone. That deal seems to stipulate that Vallone divest himself all but one restaurant. The Landry organization subsequently preserves these once interesting spots into amber, but these remain popular, if with a likely less discriminating group of patrons.
2004 – Distribution Amici Olive Oil – produced in Tuscany and owned by a Houstonian – begins from here. It is found at outlets like Spec’s and Leibman’s plus on-line.
2004 – Damian’s caters the All Star game held in Houston providing Italian food for Joe Torre and others while serving Caribbean-style food to the numerous Latin ballplayers on the American League roster.
2005 – Appropriately relocated to the former site of Maxim’s (once “the secure haven of the River Oaks plutocracy”) and featuring contemporary artwork from likes of the acclaimed Texas-bred artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles, Tony’s is named among the top new restaurants in the country by Esquire magazine. The French executive chef with the tough-to-pronounce Polish last name, Olivier Ciesielski, directs a kitchen staff that is capable of creating excellent Italian food.
2006 – In January Marco Wiles’ Dolce Vita opens on lower Westheimer. Seemingly using Mario Batali’s Otto in Manhattan as a template, Wiles goes far beyond that with his Italian-style pizzas fired in a wood-burning oven using a range of toppings inspired throughout the peninsula. It is easily the best pizzeria in Houston and encounters no serious contenders for years, if ever.
2006 – In Damian Mandola founds Mandola Family Winery south of Austin focusing on Italian varietals like Vermentino, Dolcetto and Montepulciano. TABC issues arising because of his ownership in dining or retail establishments – or a fallout with his partners according to another source – cause him to sell out to his partners. He still owns the attractive Trattoria Lisina next door.
2006 – Gourmet Sardina, an outlet for high quality Sardinian food products, is launched by Arcodoro’s owners Efisio and Lori Farris. The online shop offers artisanal products from Farris’ homeland that are quite different than those found in the typical Italian-American pantry. Bottarga, bitter honey and saba are a few of the high-end items that also include wine and olive oils.
2006 – The October edition of Gourmet listed Da Marco at number 29 among their list of top 50 restaurants in the country. Only three other Italians are placed higher – Babbo in New York, Vetri in Philadelphia, and Bartolotta di Mare in Las Vegas – not bad company, at all.
2007 – Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia from Efisio Farris of Arcodoro is published. It is likely the first Sardinian cookbook published in English. The New York Times listed it among “25 noteworthy cookbooks published in 2007.’’
2007 – Late in the year Ristorante Cavour opens in developer Giorgio Borlenghi’s posh Hotel Granduca. The executive chef is a Frenchman, David Denis. He infuses the flavors similar to his native Provence and Liguria to create a broadly northern Italian array of very well-crafted dishes. He proves that the French culinary tradition of stock-making marries well with Milanese-style risotto. For those that don’t know much about Italian history, the restaurant takes its moniker from Baron Cavour, one of the principal architects of Italian unification in 1861; the conquest of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and its incorporation into the Turin-based Kingdom of Sardinia.
2008 – In an article entitled “The Best U.S. Italian Restaurants” in the April issue of Forbes Traveler, John Mariani names Tony’s among the top dozen or so Italian eateries in the country. He writes, “in its new location, Tony's plays to a younger crowd that comes for rigorously authentic Italian regional cuisine and great wines.”
2008 – Also in April, Andrea Pintus, the longtime chef at lower Heights-area Patrenalla’s, and a native of Sardinia, opens his own restaurant with business partner, Luigi Campioni, on Westheimer and Dairy Ashford. Called Andrea’s is serves approachable Italian and Italian-American dishes that are a very good value.
2008 – In the heat of the summer, Russo’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria from the folks at the local New York Pizzeria chain opens in northwest Houston. Houstonians can get a taste of more pizzas cooked in the more traditional early New York and New Haven fashion.
2009 – Sicilian Village located in Friendswood begins distributing packaged olives from Sicily. These are available at Spec’s, Amazon.com and SicilianVillage.com.
2009 – Marco Wiles opens his third truly Italian restaurant along a short stretch of Westheimer, Poscol, in March. It takes its name from the term in dialect used for a main thoroughfare (Via Poscolle) in the northeastern Italian city of Udine, the hometown of Wiles’ family. Featuring small plates and inspiration largely from Veneto and Friuli, it sports another well-chosen all-Italian wine list. Texas Monthly names it and Valentino on its list of best restaurants to open in the state that year.
2009 – In September Houston hosts its first Italian Expo produced to highlight products from Italy. It is a boon to wine lovers, maybe too much so. Chicago is the only other city to host a similar event.
2009 – Lynette Hawkins gets back into the game in September with her Tuscan- and Venetian-inspired small plate spot Giacomo’s on Westheimer west of Kirby. From the start, it features a very well-chosen and well-priced all-Italian wine list that seems to cover every corner of that country. It evolves to become one of the city's most reliable and best-value dining destinations, regardless of cuisine.
2009 – Legendary Piero Selvaggio – whose Santa Monica eatery Valentino was long regarded as the best Italian restaurant in the country – opens his third branch in Houston’s modern Hotel Derek near the Galleria. The restaurant is a new concept for Houston, an Italian ambition and credibility previously found elsewhere in this country just in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas and one spot in Philadelphia. A veteran of Valentino’s Las Vegas operation, the talented Cunninghame West heads the kitchen here, doing an excellent job with an approachable version of Selvaggio’s inspired takes on alta cucina. James Beard Award-winning chef Luciano Pellegrini occasionally comes to town from Sin City to aid with special dinners for some added culinary power.
2009 – Stella Sola by one of the city’s top toques, Bryan Caswell, along with partner Bill Floyd opens in the Heights in November 2009. Influenced by the meaty robustness of some northern Italian cooking, its name translates to “Lone Star” (or “Lonely Star”) in English. One of Caswell’s early cooking stints was at Damian’s. He later cooked with the talented Rocco DiSpirito well before DiSpirito’s televised Italian-American restaurant nightmare, “The Restaurant” in 2003.
2010 – In April, Tuscan Renato De Pirro, an alumnus of Pierro Selvaggio’s Las Vegas restaurants and previously the Executive Chef at Osteria del Circo, the Maccioni’s family refined and well-regarded trattoria in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, takes over the kitchen at Ristorante Cavour, bringing a more properly Italian taste to the menu at this upscale establishment.
2010 – Ciao Bello, another Vallone enterprise that had opened a year earlier in a space once occupied by La Strada, is named among “11 More Restaurants You Don't Want to Miss” by Esquire in 2010. It will become known for its zesty flavors among Roman-style thin-crust pizzas, pastas, Gulf-oriented seafood and meaty Italian-American-inflected preparations in an attractively casual and comfortable but very stylish setting that has long been a Vallone signature. Also in 2010, Vallone’s Caffe Bello takes over the original address of La Strada in Montrose, but struggles for traction in an evolving neighborhood.
2010 – In December Amici in Sugar Land closes. It seems competition from a recently opened Olive Garden nearby might have played a factor. This does not reflect well on Fort Bend residents.
2011 – Pizaro's opens in a strip center on Memorial in west Houston serving Neapolitan style pizza, the most truly Neapolitan that Houston has thus seen. Proprietor Bill Hutchinson puts his “Verace Pizza Napoletana” certification as a Pizzaiolo to good use, and the bare-bones spots draws customers from around the area including a number of Italian ex-pats.
2011 – In an area deficient in quality fresh Italian sausage, you can purchase it at the two Carrabba's owned by the family, though you will likely have to call ahead. The piquant, flavorful sausage is made by Johnny Carrabba, Sr., and unusual for Italian sausage elsewhere, but consistent with Texas, it contains a fair portion of beef.
2012 – Valentino, the best Italian restaurant that ever was in Houston, cannot overcome the very difficult location in the Hotel Derek and shutters. A shame, as proprietor Piero Selvaggio never got to do all he wanted to with the restaurant including becoming more adventurous with the offerings and expanding its wine list to at least a substantial of his Santa Monica original that has one of top handful of wine lists in the country
2014 – Inspired by the Italian heritage of executive chef Ryan Pera, Coltivare opens in January on White Oak in the Heights offering seasonal American-Italian fare including distinctively bready pizzas along with pastas and larger preparations in a casual, no reservations setting that seduces most local food critics.
2014 – Giancarlo Ferrara, the executive chef at Arcodoro for over a decade, opens Amalfi on Westheimer west of the Galleria in the same strip center as The Palm. Highlighting the dishes and flavors of his native Salerno, down the coast from Naples, that should be familiar to most American diners along with some items and techniques from his stops in the Veneto and at a French restaurant bearing two Michelin stars, the restaurant quickly becomes one of the top Italians in the city.
2015 – Now sporting the descriptive phrase, “Naples Influenced. Milan Inspired. Houston Cherished,” Tony’s celebrates its fiftieth year in business.
2015 – Pizaro's opens a second location on Montrose and West Gray. It later expands its menu to include New York style and Detroit style pizzas. The latter, a version of the Sicilian pan pizza created in Detroit soon after the Second World War, has been trendy addition to pizza joint menus across the country.
2017 – Across the street from the ballpark, Astros owner opens Potente, an upscale, expensive Italian-themed restaurant that eventually gets the skilled Danny Trace who was the executive chef at Brennan’s, and at the estimable Commander's Palace in New Orleans before that, as its top toque.
2017 – Chef Mark Cox of Mark's fame begins consulting at Fratelli's, an Italian-American restaurant in Spring Branch that began as a franchised offshoot of the original Fratelli's on 290. His work improves the food and the restaurant's profile, which becomes a favorite of an older set of west Houston customers.
2017 – After 36 years in business, Carmelo’s closes after Christmas brunch. Owner Carmelo Mauro, a steadfast member of the Houston restaurant community was both the former president of both the Texas Restaurant Association and the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.
2018 – Arcodoro, the upscale Sardinian restaurant in the Galleria that drew loyal patronage from ex-pat Italians and other Europeans closes in February after nearly two decades in business.
2018 – In April, the Italian wine and food publication Gambero Rosso names Amalfi as the best fine dining Italian restaurant in Houston, Sud Italia, with Maurizio Ferrarese in the kitchen, as tops for traditional cuisine, the Dallas-based chain Cane Rosso for pizza (quite surprisingly, and maybe a bit grudgingly according to the person I spoke with from Gambero Rosso), and Poscol for having the best wine program among local Italian restaurants.
2018 – In July, J.J. Watt asked his 5 million-plus followers on Twitter for the best Italian restaurant in Houston. The clear favorite of the 2,000 or so respondents was, very oddly and depressingly, Olive Garden, of which there are over twenty locations in the Houston area, which is also depressing to learn.
2018 – Tanglewood’s neighborhood Italian restaurant from Tony Vallone, Ciao Bello, closes rather suddenly in August, a couple of weeks after sibling steakhouse Vallone’s does so in Spring Branch.
2018 – In November, chef Maurizio Ferrarese, who won deserved plaudits at Quattro and Sud Italia, is hired to take over the kitchen at Ristorante Cavour.
I’ve got to write that through a coincidence of fate, I was born in the Italian North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and afterwards belonged to the same parish in Bergen County, New Jersey as the mother of Frank Sinatra, whom I was told reliably purchased kegs for church functions. I was the local editor for the Zagat Survey for several years until Google did away with those positions and, possibly more pertinently, is the author of the ebook From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione: The Story of Italian Restaurants in America that is available on Amazon.
An artistic creation from Ristorante Cavour