With far fewer Italians than in other cities, it took a while for Italian restaurants to shine here. Even as late as 1982 Texas Monthly, if not the most knowledgeable or critical source concerning Italian-themed restaurants over the years, opined: “Houston was slighted when the restaurant gods passed out Italian eateries.” It’s gotten much better since then, thankfully.
I penned the original, much shorter, version of this for My Table magazine back in 2011 and have updated several times since then. It’s an enjoyable topic that has resonated, as Italian food in most of its guises is fun and well-loved, more so than most cuisines it seems. According to a once much-quoted truism from playwright Neil Simon, “there are two laws in the universe: the law of gravity and everyone likes Italian food.”
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.
1895 – The December 12, 1895 Houston Post has an advertisement for Pizzini’s at 513-515 Main Street downtown. It advertises itself as a “French Restaurant”.
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 were 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.
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 a seafood rather than an Italian restaurant, though. Eventually replicating in Houston where a New York Times reports seventy years later in an overview of Houston for visitors that “you go to dinner at Gaido's, a seafood restaurant on South Main Street eat six different kinds of oyster dishes…and then drive virtually across the street to see the rodeo at the Astrodome.”
1913 – Houston has two pasta factories: Houston Macaroni Manufacturing Co. and Magnolia Macaroni Manufacturing & Co.
1906 – Immigrating at age 23 from Sicily to Galveston, Joe Grasso would revolutionize the local shrimping industry, eventually introducing motorized shrimp trawlers, modern packaging, and blast-freezing for shrimp, the last, initially for the Japanese market. Early in his career, most of his catch were used as bait as not many people ate shrimp then. Shrimp scampi would likely be less popular without his work.
1920 – Houston is home to Chinese and Japanese restaurants, but seemingly no Italian restaurant. This is when the city’s population was around 140,000.
1924 – On July 20, both the Houston Post and Chronicle reported a society vignette that a certain. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Godwin gave a small dinner party “at the new Italian restaurant in Hermann park.” This was at the café that was opened to patrons of the golf course at the park by John Pappa and Vincent Vallone the month before and seemed to also be open for special events.
1926 – Mme. Cerracchio’s, likely Houston’s first permanent Italian restaurant, opens in a stately colonial-style mansion at 2414 Main Street, in today’s Midtown, which also houses the studio of Mrs. Cerracchio’s husband, the sculptor Enrico Cerracchio. He created one of the city’s most iconic civic artworks, the bronze equestrian statue of Sam Houston in Hermann Park. The restaurant advertises table d’hote service from 6:00 to 9:00 and a la carte afterwards in “an atmosphere of refinement and culture.” With a slogan of “Where Houston’s ‘Who’s Who’ meets and entertains the Nation’s ‘Who’s Who’”, it serves the food inspired from Enrico’s birthplace near Naples with “raviolis, meat balls, and fine Italian spaghetti.” Mme. Cerracchio’s, a more appealing-sounding for an Italian and French restaurant than that of her maiden surname, Kowalski, nonetheless becomes Nino’s the next year.
1927 – On September 7, the Houston Chronicle reported on a spaghetti dinner hosted by Vincent Vallone at his home in the East End. It was an annual event that this well-known Calabrian-born caterer and Hermann Park concessionaire had held for “several years around Labor Day for distinguished members of labor, political, and business organizations. The guest of honor was Lieutenant Governor Barry Miller.” Mayor Oscar Holcombe was also in attendance as were the city manager, police chief, judges and labor leaders. On a late Wednesday night, January 27, 1932, with the Vallones at a reception for the visiting tenor Beniamino Gigli, that same substantial two-story brick house at 4219 Lamar was destroyed in an explosion and subsequent fire, the aftermath depicted in a large photo in the Houston Chronicle the next day. The cause was never determined.
1930 – Del Monico’s, “The Original Spaghetti House” opens at 3622 Main in today’s Midtown, where Winnie’s sits today, featuring spaghetti and meatball, spaghetti with mushroom sauce, ravioli, fried chicken and steaks. Opened by Vincent Navarro, immigrant from the Naples area, along with his wife Camille, who is in the kitchen, began at that address as a grocery store in 1906. The business rebooted downtown to Louisiana and Jefferson in 1937 and the moved in the late 1950s to Westheimer in Highland Village, eventually closing after a four-decade run.
1944 – Massa’s opens in downtown Houston, and is in business for over seventy years. Like Gaido’s in Galveston, it carries the name of Sicilian-American owners and is also a seafood restaurant rather than an Italian one.
1947 – In the fall of 1947, a restaurant in Houston advertises pizza for possibly the first time in the city. Listed as “La Pizza” with among over a dozen other items like Spaghetti a la Marinara, Spaghetti with Crab Gravy, Spaghetti with Chicken, and Meat Raviola, the small notice in the Houston Post is for Vincent’s at 1701 Calhoun, in southeastern downtown. “Vincent Vallone, Mgr.” who was recently pardoned after serving several years of 99-year sentence for murder.
1947 – Joe Matranga opens up a an intimate restaurant called the "Ding-a-Ling" on Irvington north of downtown that decades later changes its name to Matranga’s. The garrulous, oft-crooning owner “was a character,” remembered Johnny Carrabba. It becomes a favorite Italian for most Houstonians, and carries on until 1990 known for dishes like spaghetti and meatballs and veal Parmesan served with plenty of “simmering tomato sauce and garlic – lots of garlic” that resonated with customers. Matranga once admitted to a reporter that his famous sauce contained “onion and garlic and olive oil and salt, pepper and basil” along with tomato paste and was on the stove for eight hours.
1948 – An inexpensive Italian restaurant called Big Humphrey’s opens on Park Place in southeast Houston. It is named after owner Joe Vitale’s professional wrestling persona. He opens a second location on Bissonnet, and later, the remaining restaurant moves to Pearland and operated until January 2020.
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. Pizza dough to be used at home. The Italian dough part might not have been a surprise since her husband was an Italian-American with family roots in the Naples area. 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.
1949 – The biggest local news story of the year, and one that made headlines for years, began on a July evening on a lonely road south of Houston when the 65-year-old Italian restaurateur Vincent Vallone was shot in the head with a 12-gauge automatic shotgun while driving his Cadillac. This had followed on the heels of three unsolved murders of local Italians. Vallone was not only a well-known caterer, nightclub owner and convicted then pardoned murderer, he had made the local newspaper over the years for attempted murder, an arrest and later acquittal in a headlines-grabbing, sprawling Federal narcotics case also involving Sam Maceo of Galveston – and a total of 88 people, including a “convicted French murderer, now awaiting deportation to France for beheading” – bookmaking, and “whose name was linked with various murders and other crimes.” Suspects in Vallone’s murder were apprehended several months later and the subsequent trials and news reports proved sensational: three venues; the defendant and suspected triggerman who was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during the war with service in Sicily, the Italian peninsula, and Normandy; a confession wrought by police beatings; an assertion by defense “that for 15 years before he want to the pen Vincent Vallone got 20 per cent of every illegal enterprise in Houston”; a hung jury; finally, an acquittal in San Angelo engineered by star defense attorney Percy Foreman, who was then punched by the Harris County sheriff and a Texas Ranger in the court causing an overnight hospitalization. More than a decade later, the Houston Post called “the Vincent Vallone murder case, the last Mafia slaying in Harris County”, which may or may not have been true.
1949 – Azzarelli’s on Post Oak Road just off the Katy highway is opened by registered architect Frank Azzarelli and his wife, “Mrs. Azzarelli”, who is in the kitchen. A “homey sort of place” that serves “spaghetti in any of its dozen ways” along with other Italian-American dishes. Just two years later, they open a second location, “Spaghetti House Number 2” also on Post Oak Road, but New Post Oak Road. The Post reports in 1952 that “beefy, food-loving” Frank Azzarelli has recently started a Houston branch of Overweights Anonymous because, “he had gained 77 pounds since opening his restaurant three years ago.” The second spaghetti house expands but both are closed by 1959.
1949 – On November 2, the Houston Post reported that “Tony Vallone will give abut 150 invited guests a preview of Vincent’s Sorrento, Italian specialy [sic] café at 6PM Wednesday…Vincent’s Sorrento, which is at 1419 Fannin at Bell, was the restaurant project Vincent Vallone was working on when he was killed last July. His son, Tony, went about with his father’s plans after the elder Vallone’s death. Giulio Zanga, a native of Milan, will be in charge of the kitchen.” It advertises “Romantic, intimate setting, with a background of artistic music” and its specialty, “Ravioli with spaghetti.”
1950 – The Bureau of the Census publication for 1950 lists 4,195 Italians in Houston, those who were born in Italy or who have had at least one parent born there, out of a population of almost 600,000. Forty-three cities have more Italians than Houston, led by New York (684,865), Chicago (116,595), Philadelphia (115,205), Boston (53,335), Newark (49,275), Detroit (43,580), Buffalo (36,615), Rochester, NY (34,555), Providence, RI (34,370), San Francisco (32,960), and Cleveland (32,340); the reason why there was a paucity of Italian restaurants here compared to other large cities for quite a while.
1950 – The scandalous (i.e. adulterous) affair between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner is confirmed for the nation in late January at Italian restaurant in Houston, Vincent’s Sorrento downtown. Sinatra is in town for a several week gig at the grand Shamrock Hotel opened a couple of years earlier. A guest of Mayor Oscar Holcombe at the restaurant, Sinatra accosts a photographer from the Houston Press who is about to capture the couple on film, but proprietor Tony Vallone intervenes before blows are thrown.
1951 – Luigi’s had opens at 1701 Calhoun at Jefferson in the southern part of downtown, occupying the space that once housed Vincent’s, with “pizza, lasagne imbottite, veal scaloppini, spaghetti, raviola” along with “other fine Neapolitan dishes” on the menu, each “prepared individually by ‘Mama’ Velotta” who owns the restaurant with her husband, Sam, born Salvatore, both natives of New York. A dinner order also comes with minestrone, salad, spaghetti, garlic bread, spumoni, cookies, coffee, and a bottle of wine.
1951 – A new Vincent’s opens on Holcombe and Main across from the Shamrock Hotel where “you can find a wide variety of Italian dishes and your meal is served in the quiet atmosphere of candlelight.” Operated by Benny Vallone, brother of Tony Vallone at The Sorrento – formerly Vincent’s Sorrento – it becomes a regular mention for the local dining and nightlife columnists for years. It’s run lasts until 1959 when it becomes a steakhouse called the Rib-Eye, which also serves a few Italian items like lasagna and veal Parmesan.
1952 – Valian’s Drive-In on 6935 South Main, between Kirby and Buffalo Speedway, which opened in 1950, is now advertising “Pizza Pie.” It’s not the first to do – at least Vincent’s Sorrento and Luigi’s, proclaiming “The World’s Finest Pizza” in print – are serving it before, but Valian’s becomes a local favorite and later expands to several locations with the name Valian’s Real Pizza.
1953 – “Nowadays there’s so much talk about lasagna and pizza that everyone is asking for genuine imported recipes” according to the Houston Post on September 25, so it obliges with instructions for those two dishes from Luigi’s, which had moved to 4704 Montrose, just south of the Southwest Freeway today. Another Italian restaurant, the third there, Gallo’s, takes over its previous space at 1701 Calhoun. One of Luigi’s most popular dishes, that “famous lasagna” features a quickly cooked tomato sauce of canned tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and sugar, tiny fried beef meatballs, fresh fennel-laden pork sausage, shredded chicken, canned mushrooms, ricotta and mozzarella within layers of dried lasagna noodles. The Velotta’s operate Luigi’s for half-dozen years at the Montrose address before turning management over to their daughter and son-in-law.
1953 – In January, it was reported that Joe DiMaggio, “(no relation to the famous ballplayer) now operating Houston’s newest Italian restaurant at Westheimer and Shepherd…All food is prepared to order for dinner.” Nightlife columnist Charlie Evans in the Houston Chronicle calls Joe DiMaggio’s “one of the neatest dining spots in that area” later in the year. It becomes well-known for its pizzas and, especially when in season, crawfish bisque, as Joe DiMaggio is from Louisiana.
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 well into the new millennium, the meat balls and long-simmered tomato sauce follow the same recipes as when the lunches began. The fresh Italian sausage is made by Society members
1956 – Soon after reopening Sorrento at 6513 Old Richmond Road in late 1956, the vice squad raids and arrests proprietor Tony Vallone on sports gambling charges. The vice squad raids the restaurant at least once more and Vallone makes the local papers several times in subsequent years including headlines, as with the Houston Post in July, 1962, “Gambling Raid Nets A Familiar Figure: Tony Vallone….“, reporting that he “has been arrested here for gambling activities many times here.” In 1964, the restaurant moves 6611 Bissonnet near Beechnut.
1958 – The Pizza Oven from Joe Geaccone and Paul Fineberg serving pizza for dine-in and take-out opens at 3130 Richmond near Buffalo Speedway, where the initial El Tiempo is today. Though owners plans for “eight or 10 strategic locations around the city” when starting never materialized, it became a popular spot for a few years before closing.
1960 – Pino’s opens at 3000 Cullen adjacent to Jeppesen Stadium and across from the main entrance to the University of Houston. It is owned by Pino Farinola from coastal Brindisi in southeastern Italy. The restaurant is an old house and seats about fifty and even has a special drive-in window for to-go orders. It was preceded a couple of years earlier by Edda’s Italian Restaurant on OST in the Thunderbird Motel, run by Pino in the kitchen and his sister, Edda, up front serving ravioli, cannelloni, tagliatelle, tortellini ai funghi, braciole, lasagna and pizza and more for dine-in and take-out.
1961 – Casa Poli opens early in the year at 2231 W. Holcombe across from the Shamrock by transplanted Brooklyners Joseph and Frances (Mama Poli) Papocchia, whose last name is spelled in a several ways in print. It serves the familiar Italian-American fare, with the pastas made in-house – manicotti is a specialty – and also a popular New York-area items, clams oreganata and veal and peppers, but assertively no pizza. It’s open for nearly fifteen years, then the quaint two-story house seating about fifty is sold and becomes Buon Appetito in 1975.
1961 – The “famous” Luigi’s reopens at 5402 San Jacinto in what is now the Museum District 1961 with Sam and “Mama” Velotta after their unsuccessful attempt at a two-level restaurant and private club there called Chateau V. The new Luigi’s initially includes a supper club “featuring exotic dancers” on the second floor, but the restaurant moves again the next year to just outside of Kemah on FM 518.
1963 – Frank Azzarelli, then the proprietor of Azzarelli’s Continental Kitchen, dies of a heart attack at age 62. His wife had passed away the year before. The restaurant was at 4714 N. Shepherd, not far south of St. Pius High School, for about the past several months after a tenure at 4704 Montrose, the home of Luigi’s for much of the 1950s.
1964 – The second of three, entirely unrelated Italian-themed restaurants named Nino’s opens at 7404 Greenbriar at S. Main, not too far from the soon-to-finished Astrodome, related to the family operating Del Monico’s. The menu includes “spaghetti, pizza, veal scallopini, beef canneloni [sic] and other popular Italian items.”
1964 – In late October the Post writes, “For years the name Vallone has been synonymous with good Italian food in Houston. Young Tony Vallone is keeping up this tradition admirably with his Sorrento restaurant.”
1965 – Joe DiMaggio’s reopens, after its last location fell to the creation of the Southwest Freeway. “One of the most cosmopolitan dining spots in Houston” with “imported candles from Italy” according to the Houston Chronicle dining columnist. The new address is 3795 Richmond, now nearly across the street from Costco.
1965 – In March, Tony’s from Tony Vallone, Sr. – formerly known as simply Tony Vallone – and his 21-year-old son, Tony Vallone, Jr., opens as a casual Italian restaurant, at 2716 Sage Road near where the Galleria would be constructed in a few years. It’s reported that Sorrento was leased to another operator and the two Vallone’s will devote all their time to the new Tony’s, which is later described as, “a place that was fun to visit, with good food and drink, dancing….” The opening chef is French-born Edmund Foulard, who would later have success and local acclaim beginning the next year with his own French and Continental restaurants.
1967 – Just east of Kirby in the Rice Village, Vittorio’s opens at 2529 Rice Boulevard from Vittorio Assandri, a native of Genoa with a doctorate in economics, who has had Vic’s Village Cafeteria next door for the past decade or so. Lea Giordano, a native of Florence and veteran of other local restaurants, heads the kitchen for the first half-dozen years, into her seventies, and is “one of the very few female Executive Chefs in this country.” Several of Assandri’s family members provide much of the rest of the staff, and it quickly becomes a favorite of the Houston Chronicle’s dining columnist, helping her fill space for years. The restaurant serves the familiar Italian dishes necessary for successful restaurant while becoming known for its “famous milk fed veal dishes” and even more so, its shrimp scampi. But there also items from Assandri’s home city and elsewhere north of the Mezzogiorno, like pasta with pesto, lasagna with bechamel, and osso buco; even later, also from the other side of the Alps. Lebanese immigrant Fred Kalil becomes the maitre’d after a few years and later opens a popular long-time restaurant under his given name, Fuad’s. Vittorio’s closes in 1978.
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. Another oddity is “Mama 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 brother, John that opened in 1974. With downtown and then the hotel becoming more derelict during the 1970s, this venture also has a short tenure.
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 for short times). Nancy Sinatra married singer Tommy Sands – who attended Lanier Junior High and then Lamar High School – 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.” It might be hard to envision Dino going back to Houston, though.
1969 – Columnist Bill Roberts in the Post notes about “The emergence of Tony’s Restaurant…As one of the spots where the elite met to eat.”
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 Aldo, Anthony and Giovanni Rosa serving pizza and assertive Italian-American red sauce classics, and proving that this formula with competent hands in the kitchen still works well after fifty-plus years.
1971 – In November, Salvatore’s opens in an attractive old mansion at 4002 Montrose at Branard, which has been a restaurant and club since the early 1960s. It’s from the Nizza family originally from Sciacca in southern Sicily, siblings Salvatore, Rino, Lino, and Anna Maria along with their mother, Giuseppina, who makes the desserts including cannoli, of course. A relaxed place on a couple levels, the restaurant has pleasant, umbrella-laden sidewalk dining and live piano entertainment. The menu is mostly familiar Italian-American items but with the cannelloni, ravioli and manicotti, house-made. “A specialty is milk-fed veal prepared seven different ways.” Another is the dessert coffee, an alcoholic and whipped cream concoction prepared table-side. Entrées are served with salad, spaghetti and garlic bread. It opens a second branch on FM 1960 in 1975, but shutters on Montrose after almost exactly a decade.
1972 – In his November 4 dining column in the Houston Post, Vince Gargotta announces a special dinner at Tony’s and it is seemingly the last time the name Tony Vallone, Jr. appears in print. Hence forward, it is simply Tony Vallone.
1974 – With the catchphrase, “a great Italian restaurant…with a heck of an Irish bar,” Birraporetti’s opens on West Gray near River Oaks. Though hardly the former, and more accurately the latter, it’s a fun and useful place, dishing functional, familiar Italian-American items that expands to the downtown theater district, the Galleria area, and even sunny Orange County, California – that location closes in 1998 not long after losing a $2.3 million sexual harassment lawsuit brought by two former waitresses. Birraporetti’s is still around, adjacent to the Alley Theatre and with a branch down in Friendswood. The marriage of concepts was the product of a very common marriage in Roman Catholic parishes in much of the country, of the founders, Michael Horan and Shirley Gaudino, Irish- and Italian-Americans.
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 the Belpaese, 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 – a track heavily trafficked with tourists, 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.
1975 – “Wig exec Chris Arno” opens the 75-seat Arno’s well-off the beaten restaurant path at 5212 Cedar in Bellaire in June with Arno reportedly doing the cooking at the start. Operations quickly turn to Arno’s stepdaughter Janice Beeson, Michael Stein and Pancho Garrison, the last a Rice graduate raised in Rome, who brings culinary ideas from his time there. Houston Chronicle dining columnist Mary K. is smitten, calling it “one of the most exciting discoveries in the past year.” She enjoys the spinach gnocchi, saltimbocca all Romana, linguine, house-made varioli – ravioli, which was somehow misspelled in two different columns – and some not-so-Italian items, Tournedos Rossini, and a “chicken breast sauteed in butter and cooked in brandy and heavy whipping cream.”
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 – The February issue of Texas Monthly decries that “it is disappointing that there is such a dearth of authentic offerings in the restaurants of Texas.” No kidding, though there was a dearth in most of the country then, too. The author goes on the write that “Dallasites have the best selection of good Italian restaurants in Texas,” and that “good food doesn’t seem to be a requisite for success in Houston.” The wine lists throughout also draw scorn, offering just Chianti and maybe Valpolicella, Bardolino and Soave. He does praise Renata’s at 2006 Lexington, which opened in 1974, and Matranga’s. The former is lauded for the “Chicken Renata stuffed with ham and cheese,” a dish found nowhere in Italy. He also mentions that Tony’s, which “can’t be called an Italian restaurant, does serve specialties like osso buco and the best veal piccata I’ve eaten.”
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). This Nino’s is the third Italian restaurant in Houston bearing that name, none related to the other.
1978 – Quaint Arno’s is awarded a star by Texas Monthly in its roundup of restaurants, one of only four so accoladed in the Houston section. This is even after chef Pancho Garrison’s departure. Praised in the magazine in the past for the “good taste to explore facets of Italian cuisines heretofore unknown in Houston,” with many Northern Italian-inspired offerings including house-made pastas, veal kidneys and pesto. Also noted for its seafood from beyond the Gulf, including mussels, and for an appetizer of mushrooms caps stuffed with the minced stems, onion, cream cheese and dill, from a recipe in Gourmet. Arno’s becomes known as a “a decidedly upscale Italian restaurant of good food and mighty pretentions” and in 1980 still “one of our town’s outstanding Italian restaurants” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Stuffed Mushrooms. The last time I had stuffed mushrooms was at a tired Italian-American restaurant in Arlington over two decades ago. I found just a handful of recipes for it in a number of Italian cookbooks I have, and I don’t remember ever having the dish in fifteen trips to Italy. But for maybe forty years or so, oddly, stuffed mushrooms were a dish that many local Italian restaurants were known for. “Sam’s famed stuffed mushrooms” at Luigi’s drew a mention in the mid-50s, as did La Via on lower Westheimer for its “divine stuffed mushrooms” in the mid-70s . Azzarelli’s, Sorrento, Salvatore’s, Dante’s, Vittorio’s and Bertolotti’s were others where stuffed mushrooms were a specialty over the years. Not sure what most restaurants used to stuff the mushrooms – just “Italian style” was a common description – but at Salvatore’s in the 70s, it was “veal and drenched in a delectable burgundy sauce” and crabmeat later became popular, it seems. Crabmeat usually a good choice for most dishes.
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 and expands to Austin in a few years, a city with a complete absence in decent Italian cooking, which I was to learn moving there a few years later.
1982 – Arno’s moves into Salvatore’s old space at 4002 Montrose. Whatever inconsistencies existed in the kitchen and with service seemed to grow at the new location and the restaurant only gets notice for its schedule of live entertainment. It closes in 1993, as “health and age forces [us] to retire” according to a sales notice in the Chronicle.
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 quaint restaurant called La Trattoria on Westheimer just east of Voss. Serving broadly northern Italian trattoria classics along with American-friendly items like garlic bread, fettuccine Alfredo and cream-laden veal scaloppine, 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, a neighborhood Irish bar, on Shepherd north of Westheimer. It, surprisingly, serves pizza, excellent pizza – a cracker-thin-crust that’s cut into squares and vaguely Neapolitan in heritage. This was the original type of pizza served in Chicago, well before the advent of the deep-dish. Its pizza-maker trained at the acclaimed Vito & Nick’s in southwestern Chicago, a remaining bastion of this style. Though still open in 2023, the pizzas at Kenneally’s haven’t been that great in years.
1982 – Tony Mandola opens the self-named Gulf Coast Kitchen, his second restaurant at 1602 Shepherd. In early 1988 it moves to much nicer digs 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.
1982 – Antonio Mingalone, a native of Basilicata in southern Italy, opens Montesano at 6009 Beverly Hill, aptly near Richmond and Fountain View, as the restaurant features a fountain inside. Texas Monthly quickly took note and Montesano will improve and become one of the city’s top Italian restaurants with influences from around that country geared toward the local clientele.
1983 – In March Houston Chronicle review of the restaurant Romero’s, the “professional restaurant critic” opines about the types of local Italian-themed dining options he finds here: “There is Trendy Italian. That fits such places as Arno’s of Bellaire, now of Montrose. There is Gourmet Italian, such as the Green Pepper in Bellaire. Also Down-Home Italian a la Nino’s, Family Italian such as is offered by Ballatori’s, Basic Italian at Joe Matranga’s, and Junk Italian, at any franchise pizza spot.”
1984 – In a survey of nearly 1,000 Houston Post readers, the most popular Italian restaurants are: D’Amico’s, Birraporretti’s, Nino’s, and Bono’s.
1985 – Following up the popularity of D’Amico’s, Nash D’Amico’s Pasta & Clam Bar opens at 2421 in the heart of the Rice Village. Nicely tiled and adorned with glass bricks 80s-popular neons, the Italian-American offerings skew toward pastas and Gulf seafood and Texas Monthly commented that it “still draws the trendy crowd” a few years after opening. It lasts for a decade there expanding to the Galleria area, Galveston and Clear Lake.
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,” something he has done for years – odd but eye-catching – in awarding it the Best Restaurant Postcard, a time when postcards printed by restaurants for take-away were a thing.
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 serving more refined and better executed Italian-American cooking with a Gulf Coast touch. 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 and not far south from River Oaks. More casual than Damian’s, the most expensive item on the menu is $9 and the wine offerings number in the single digits. The robust, familiar southern Italian-American fare some nods to their Sicilian roots, attentive service and lively atmosphere quickly resonates with Houstonians and becoming a local favorite.
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.
1987 – Tucked away, away, in the neighborhood just two blocks from Carrabba’s on Kirby, Bertolotti opens, the second restaurant from Italian natives Stefano and Nella Bertolotti, who have one in Friendswood, Pontillo. It has many popular dishes inspired from much of Italy, and also specials like sweetbreads, beef tongue, rabbit, most created to a robust effect. Cream sauces. A dressing-heavy salad, featuring Romaine, and garlic bread accompany all meals. It’s open for decade and then the Bertolotti’s turn their attention back south with Babbo Bruno in a couple of locations that get some critical notice, and later, seemingly as fans of The Sopranos, Bada Bing! Pizzeria in League City.
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 Houston 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 authentically Italian, but the execution and ingredients are top-notch. The flavors are properly distinct and vibrant, more so Italian, southern Italian, rather than typically Italian-American. The exuberant scene rivals the food. The restaurant is notable also for introducing to locals the Sardinian flatbread pane carasau as part of its copious complimentary bread basket and bellinis, that classic first concocted in the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice. 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 New York the 1980s, opens a restaurant in the Galleria near the pricey Barney’s spot 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. It was probably the most truly Italian restaurant in Houston to that point.
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 scene 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 the isle 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, helping it last for a couple of decades. The chain began in Leon Springs, outside of San Antonio, in 1988.
1992 – In December two chefs from the famous 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, Beso, and most recently a’Bouzy – to name most of the ones which followed, most 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 – The Leading Italian Restaurants of the United States by Gruppo Ristoranti Italiani, which promotes “the highest traditions of Italian cuisine” in this country, includes Tony’s, the only entry for a restaurant in Texas.
1994 – Anthony’s reopens at 4007 Westheimer in Highland Village, 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 the depressing 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 in the Galleria area. The elegant spot 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 – Nash D’Amico opens D'Amico's Italian Market Café on Morningside in the Rice Village that is both a market and café, or restaurant more properly. The casual place, with red checkered tablecloths adorning tables near shelves filled with grocery items and featuring Italian-American favorites and popular restaurant items along with regional favorite, crawfish ravioli, quickly resonate with the neighborhood that misses his long-running place around the corner. It expands in 2011 to the Heights and 2013 to Katy, each for just a few years.
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, who was visiting NASA.
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 located on Mid Lane near Highland Village. 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 – Husband and wife Bernand and Kathy Petronella open Paulie’s, named after their son, on Westheimer across from Lanier Middle School that serves a crowd-pleasing menu long on sandwiches, hot and cold, leafy salads, Italian-American dishes and cookies in a comfortable space done via counter-service. A second location on Holcombe opens and closes in the next decade and then Camerata, one of Houston’s most serious wine bars, in the space adjacent in 2013.
1998 – From two cousins born in Calabria and veterans of New York City pizzerias, Romano’s Pizza opens in a retail center on West Gray near Waugh. Serving Italian-American standards like manicotti, eggplant Parmesan and chicken Francese along with the pies all via gruff counter service, this becomes a favorite of transplants from the New York area looking for a taste of pizza they grew up with.
1998 – With skilled 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.” Simposio takes its name from the Michelin-starred Symposium restaurant in Carteceto in the Marche region where Baffoni had worked. Along with the opening of Arcodoro, it harkens the advent of a new professionalism in the kitchens of Italian restaurants in Houston.
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 unusually 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 well-known 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 – 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 – In January the restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel downtown with talented Tim Keating heading the kitchen is rechristened from the well-regarded but stale French-themed DeVille into Quattro following a reported $3 million remodel, a contemporary Italian restaurant. Keating’s recent turn at the landmark Four Seasons property in Milan makes this one of the most authentic Italian kitchens in the city. Alison Cook writes a review in the Houston Chronicle a few months after opening that “it's the best place downtown by a long shot.”
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 in amber, but these remain popular, if with a likely less discriminating group of patrons.
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, before closing.
2006 – Gourmet Sardinia, 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, of the well-regarded Le Mistral on the west side. 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. Unfortunately, Pintus dies as the result of an accident in early 2011 at the age of 55.
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.
2009 – Lynette Hawkins, who ran the beloved La Mora, 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 restaurateur 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 pan-Italian 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. Texas Monthly names it and Poscol on its list of best restaurants to open in the state that year.
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 January, Sardinian Nico Chessa, the former chef at Arcodoro, is named executive chef of Valentino’s flagship Santa Monica location after heading one of its Las Vegas restaurants for several years. This provides some confirmation about the quality of the kitchen at Arcodoro over the years.
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 on San Felipe, 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 – Maurizio Ferrarese moves from a Four Seasons property in Florence to head the kitchen at Quattro, which had become less interesting after Tim Keating’s departure in 2005. The restaurant will reach new heights under Ferrarese.
2010 – In December Tony Vallone’s 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, likely the best Italian restaurant that ever was in Houston, cannot overcome the very difficult location in the Hotel Derek that is a curse on restaurants 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.
2016 – Lira Rossa, a dairy in Moulton, about two hours due west of Houston, is founded, producing excellent Italian-style cow's milk cheeses in the style of those from Friuli where principal Andrea Cudin is from and elsewhere like mozzarella. Sold at the big Urban Farmers Market on Saturdays, the cheeses find a home at many of the city's best restaurants.
2017 – Across the street from the ballpark, Astros owner opens Potente, an upscale, expensive and exuberantly flavored American-Italian restaurant that eventually gets the skilled Danny Trace as executive chef, who just had that role at local Brennan’s, and worked before that at the estimable Commander's Palace in New Orleans. The 'Stros also win their first World Series title in the fall, coincidentally.
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 a strip center along lowest Westheimer, La Sicilia opens in March from a pastry chef originally from Sciacca on Sicily’s southwestern coast serving beautiful pastries including cannoli, of course, and also afternoon savories like sandwiches on cornettos and focaccias.
2018 – In April, after a very brief visit here, 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 at 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, a native of Vercelli, the rice-growing area in Piedmont, veteran of kitchens throughout Italy, and who won deserved plaudits at Quattro and Sud Italia, is hired to take over the kitchen at Ristorante Cavour.
2019 – Rosie Cannonball, the second of five planned concepts, four serving food, to open in a very smart and neat complex in the heart of Westheimer’s restaurant row directly across the street from the estimable UB Preserv, it is essentially an Italian restaurant with a more than a few nods to the Iberian peninsula on the initially short menu, which includes probably the smallest plates of pasta ever seen locally outside of a child’s menu. The crowd-pleasing dishes done well and stylish space made it an attractive stop for the ladies who lunch and a busy spot at night. In November 2022, it is the seen of a reportedly raucous early morning party celebrating the Astros victory in the World Series after the clinching Game 6 for Justin Verlander and his wife Kate Upton, who are regular diners and friends of the owners.
2020 – Patrenella's near Waugh north of Memorial, closed after nearly three decades in business. Set partially in the house where owner Sammy Patrenella grew up, this was a favorite of many, including those who get there quickly from downtown for lunch, for its approachable, comforting Italian-American dishes, even after the departure of Chef Andrea Pintus.
2020 – Vincent Mandola of Nino’s, Vincent’s and Pronto, and the Mandola clan of local restaurateurs, passes away at age 77. His restaurants remain open and family-run.
2020 – Tony Vallone dies in September at the age of 75. The city’s most famous restaurateur and proprietor of Tony’s, along with Anthony’s, Caffé Bello, Ciao Bello, Grotto, La Griglia, Vallone’s, and Los Tonyos over the years, Vallone’s restaurants, especially Tony’s, garnered national acclaim and continued attention across the decades, and greatly raised the quality of dining in Houston and Italian-themed fare, in particular. His restaurants exhibited a well-known cosseting of customers and terrific sense of design style in addition to its culinary highlights. Tony’s, opened since 1965 in three locations, carries on with his widow Donna Vallone.
2020 – In the fall, Marco Wiles finally closed his acclaimed pizzeria Dolce Vita on lower Westheimer. Not due to the pandemic, Wiles announced he wanted to focus on his other two restaurants down the street, Poscol and Da Marco as he passed his sixtieth birthday.
2020 – Chef Travis McShane returned home to Houston after about a decade working for acclaimed New York chef and restaurateur – and an originator of California cuisine in the early 1980s – Jonathon Waxman that included stints at the Italian-esque Barbuto and then as the corporate chef, with Ostia in a long-empty space on Dunlavy in Montrose, opening finally in October. Featuring recognizably Mediterranean ingredients and preparations, most of the menu is Italian-inspired with bold notes, including very well-done pizzas from a wood-burning oven, seemingly well-suited for the city from a very experienced hand.
2020 – The folks behind the terrific contemporary bistro Nancy’s Hustle opened Tiny Champions after Thanksgiving, also in EaDo and also with an odd name. Focusing on Italian-inspired but distinctive pizzas and house-made fresh pastas, the team of Sean Jensen and baking-loving chef Jason Vaughan have introduced a much-needed top-notch new pizzeria to a pizza-deficient city.
2021 – With an emphasis on the cooking of the beautiful region of the Marche, from where the owners and chefs hail, Concura in Highland Village joins the handful of truly Italian restaurants in Houston. Small inside with a décor that blends contemporary and rustic notes in plenty of black and dark gray and a distinct Eurotrash feel, but with an attractive open kitchen that feels like a newer restaurant in Italy, as does its outdoor seating along a sidewalk. It repurposes to Dante’s in 2023 with new ownership and a new chef becoming somewhat less Italian and much less interesting but with a brighter, more inviting setting.
2021 – In September, Fresco! in a strip center on the Southwest Freeway near Kirby and its chef Roberto Crescini, originally from near Lake Garda, are featured on an episode of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives where he makes fresh pasta, guanciale, and spaghetti alla carbona and taglietelle with lamb. Another good choice from Fieri for Houston, where he has rarely made a misstep in selections for his show. Fresco!, however, closes early the next year.
2021 – Alba, the new concept at the Hotel Granduca replacing Ristorante Cavour features an updated rich, plush, green-hued setting, but thankfully has the old chef, Maurizio Ferrarese, who might be the top Italian toque in Texas and some ways beyond. Terrific with fresh pastas and gnocchi, there is certainly no area chef that does a better job with risotto that’s on the menu a couple of times, befitting one from Vercelli that's not terribly far from the town of Alba and is the European capital of rice production.
2021 – Before the close of the year, husband and wife, Christina and Alfredo Mojica, veterans of Da Marco, open up Amore in the sliver of a space on Shepherd Drive that housed Maine-ly Sandwiches. Even with the never-ending roadway construction in front, the restaurant quickly draws patrons of nearby Da Marco for cooking that is very familiar. Well-done pizzas from a golden-tiled oven complement the usually hearty Italian preparations that ignore the seasons, except for those of truffles.
2022 - An outlet of the acclaimed Brooklyn pizza joint, Roberta's, opens in the food court that is the dining section of the Post Market in the northwest corner of downtown, finally in the spring. Joining several other cities in this now mini-chain, the Neapolitan-influenced, minimalist thin-crust pies live up to the hype and are what quality pizzeria-deficient Houston needs. Unfortunately, it closes suddenly in July 2023.
2022 - Chef Roberto Crescini is nicely not away very long as his essentially reprises Fresco! in a better location and a much nicer setting as Davanti near Greenway Plaza, if now costing a few more lire. Still counter-service, the menu is about the same as are the pastas made also with hard durum wheat for a more toothsome texture and the ability to be extruded. It also continues the American consumer-friendly mix and match of pasta shapes and sauces, and its tasty take on the Roman pizza al taglio. House-made sausages and occasional salumi reflect his training, too, as a norcino.
2022 – At the end of July, the family of Vincent Mandola close the rest of the restaurants in the compound on W. Dallas street where service began forty-five years earlier following the family's sale of the two-and-a-half acres of property where the restaurants sat. Nino's, Vincent's, Grappino di Nino and the little kiosk for gelato shutter. All of the casual, counter-service Pronto locations had closed earlier. Long-popular bastions for familiar Italian-American fare studded with Italy-inspired items like osso buco and fettuccine Alfredo along the way plus the not-so-Italian rotisserie chicken at Vincent's.
2022 – A couple Italian restaurants created with considerable expensive open in the Galleria area and on West Gray near River Oaks, Il Bracco and Zanti, from out of town restaurant concerns. From the Dallas area and Mexico, respectively, these are pricy, pretty and dull, and don’t enthrall too many discerning diners. Both are part of a trend of non-chef-driven multi-unit Italian concepts – margins are amazing on cacio e pepe, after all. Il Bracco is what you would expect from an Italian-themed restaurant birthed in the Park Cities of Dallas.
2023 – VinSanto, a smart wine bar and bottle shop with a strong Italian accent and sensibility, opens in west Houston on Memorial west of Gessner in January from Riccardo Guerrieri and Giorgio Caflisch, two local wine pros. Guerrieri, from Umbria, ran the similar Vinology on Bissonnet and Caflisch teaches Italian wine at the Texas Wine School. The casual menu, necessarily well-suited for the wines, includes oval-shaped pinsas, a Roman-style flatbread.
2023 – In May in the upscale River Oaks District center, Bari opens with the experienced Renato De Pirro heading the kitchen. The beautiful, brass-hued interior features tall ceilings and a long space for 150 that is large but surprisingly intimate plus seating for an additional hundred on the patio. Quickly popular with a noticeably expensively-attired and -coiffed crowd, the serious kitchen highlights popular, attractively plated pan-Italian trattoria fare, along with pizza, made very well and mostly with excellent foodstuffs imported from Italy. This is the best Italian restaurant to open in Houston since Alba and quickly one of the city's top Italians.
2023 – Elro, a slightly odd but terrific “pizzeria and crudo bar,” from Terrance Gallivan, who was one of the principals at the acclaimed Pass & Provisions, opens in June. In a big city with a deficit of quality pizzerias, the admirable individually sized pizzas are a start and a draw for many. Before arriving in Houston a decade earlier, Gallivan worked kitchens at acclaimed Italian restaurants in Manhattan that had three stars (out of four) from The New York Times, Fiamma and Alto, the last where he was executive chef. There’s noticeable Italian subtext throughout, Italian done well. The succinct, nicely chosen wine list is nearly entirely Italian, too.
I’ve got to add 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.
Amalfi's Ravioli al Pistacchio con Taleggio e Tartufo con Ragu di Cinghiale