700 Durham (two blocks south of Washington), 77007
...and mostly set in Houston
The quality of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Houston has grown dramatically since I started opining about food here nearly two decades ago, as those communities have grown and the general dining public has become more knowledgeable, appreciative, and demanding of south Asian cuisines. One of my favorites for Indian fare and a fairly frequent stop for takeaway these days is Surya, a small, minimalist spot located in a small space on Durham a couple of blocks south of Washington. With a concise menu of mostly familiar northern Indian dishes presented attractively and prepared even more enticingly all for a fair price, it is easy to like. One item is indicative of the caliber of the cooking, and accompanies every entrée, the side of rice. The high-quality, long-grained and inherently fragrant and a bit nutty basmati rice at Surya is cooked fairly quickly to an al dente texture with cinnamon and bay leaves and then some saffron, the last giving it streaks of yellow. The resulting rice, grains properly distinct and topped with a few peas, is a perfect pairing to the curries, delightful in its own right, and probably the best Indian-style rice I have ever eaten. It’s just one reason to visit Surya.
700 Durham (two blocks south of Washington), 77007
Yesterday evening, as part of the Week of Italian Cuisine, a worldwide program of the Italian government for promoting Italian cuisine and food products, the Italian consulate in Houston hosted a virtual dinner to honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Pellegrino Artusi, the author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. First published in 1891, a scant two decades after the country of Italy was fully unified, Arusi’s work has resonated as “the symbol of Italian cuisine” – if mostly featuring the cooking of Tuscany and Romagna, with a number of regions completely ignored including most of the South. It was a start to quantify and celebrate some of the amazing diversity and quality found in the disparate cuisines of Italy. That Artusi’s work is still cherished by many Italian cooks to this day and taught in cooking schools there was quite impressive to learn from the event.
The virtual dinner was created by Amalfi restaurant, which serves some of the very best Italian food in the state of Texas. Chef and owner Giancarlo Ferrara has long done wonderful work cooking dishes both rooted in his native Salerno area south of Naples, and those from other cuisines he has cooked over the years. Ferrara and team did a terrific job with the several courses, a difficult task for roughly thirty dinners to be cooked and packed then eaten several hours and at another site after preparation and delivery. Amalfi’s dishes ranged from Gnocchi alla Romana, Vitello Tonnato with sides of roast vegetables, and a dessert of Apple Strudel were the courses. Apple Strudel in Italy? Yes, it is actually popular in Friuli near the northeastern edge of Italy, which was once under the control of the Austrian Empire, and there are plentiful apples.
The strudel was excellent last night, featuring a delicate crust, tender and flavor apples and nicely complemented with small sides of caramel and whipped cream. I couldn’t help but quickly finishing it though I thought I was fun from the previous courses. Below is the recipe from Artusi, some previous pastry skills are helpful. Amalfi also seemingly sauteed the apple slices and added pine nuts for its version, which worked quite well.
Grande Strudel di Mele [Great Apple Strudel]
For the pastry dough:
Flour – 250 grams
Butter – About the size of a walnut
Egg – 1
Salt – Pinch
For the filling:
Apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced – 500 grams
Butter, melted – 100 grams, plus some more for brushing the dough.
Sugar – 85 grams
Currants, dried – 85 grams
Lemon zest – 1 lemon
Cinnamon, ground – 2 or 3 pinches
Adapted from Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino.
The famed, nearly namesake dish of Original Joe’s in San Francisco can be thought of an Italian-American take on the frittata. My father called it the frittata when he lived in San Francisco in the 1960s and frequented the restaurant. The popularity of this dish has remained regional for some reason, though it is very versatile, working well for breakfast, lunch and dinner and reputedly is welcome when suffering from a hangover, plus pairing well with a cold light beer for any of those meals.
It’s easy to make at home and quite tasty, if one of the ugliest Italian-American dishes around.
Olive oil – 2 tablespoons
Onion – ⅔ cup, chopped
Ground beef, chuck – ½ pound
Spinach, frozen – ¾ cup, thawed, somewhat dried, and finely chopped
Oregano, dried – ⅛ teaspoon
Basil, dried – ⅛ teaspoon
Salt – to taste
Black pepper – to taste
Eggs – 3
Parmigiano-Reggiano – ¼ cup, grated
1. Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion and cook over medium-high heat, stirring from time to time, until it just starts to brown.
2. Add the meat, stirring, until no longer pink.
3. Add the spinach to the pan.
4. Add the oregano, basil, salt and pepper.
5. Break the eggs into a bowl and mix well. Add to the skillet and scramble with the beef mixture.
6. When eggs are cook, remove from heat.
7. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Option – Sauté sliced cremini mushrooms in butter or olive oil to adorn the dish, similar to what is done at the restaurant these days.
The as it is at Original Joe's, which is housed at the once longtime home of Fior d'Italia. Photo by Cullen328 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78734433
My last trip to a Luby’s was a family affair that happened to be in Waco. My pleas to eat at tiny strip center Mexican restaurant near where we were meeting were ignored and the lot of us ended up at Luby’s. Mostly for convenience, I was told. The lunch was awful. My chicken fried steak, which I quite enjoy time-to-time when it is done at least somewhat well, was terrible: not very tender, if with no gristle, and a less flavorful piece of beef than is typical even for this dish. The cheap-tasting cream gravy didn’t help that much, though plenty of bottle hot sauce did some damage control. It was one of the very worst chicken steaks of the thirty or so I’ve had during the time of my quest for the best chicken fried steak in the area. The thin mashed potatoes were amazingly tastless even with brown gravy, and the straight-from-a-can-then-sitting-in-heated-tub corn was decent with some pico de gallo splashed on it, though providing no reason to be eaten without it. The jalapeño cornbread had jalapeños, which was about the best that could be said. The setting was depressing, even on a bright day with plenty of light, like a school cafeteria in an underfunded middle school built during LBJ’s tenure and with possibly the worst-kept bathrooms in a restaurant that year. The staff was very pleasant, upbeat if slow and inefficient.
It was all not surprising, even if worse than hoped. Luby’s does not serve good food, in my opinion nor has it ever really done so. I wrote three guidebooks that highlighted the best inexpensive restaurants in the Houston, Houston Dining on the Cheap. The first was published in 2002, the third and last one in 2007. Luby’s was not included in any edition nor was it ever seriously considered for inclusion. Cafeterias like Luby’s did not feature the most interesting fare, and usually didn’t or don’t use anywhere near the best quality ingredients. And then those ingredients are used in preparation that were left sitting in steam trays for a while, very rarely helping its enjoyment. Items cooked to order elsewhere were usually done so in batches well beforehand and left to sit. The food and value at these weren’t nearly good enough, especially in a city like Houston, which is not only one of the very best restaurant cities in the country, but also most affordable. Why would I, or anyone who really enjoys food, go to Luby’s when they could go to a taqueria, a bahn mi or pho stop, one featuring well-made Cajun cookery, or a number of other types of restaurants, even those serving the Southern-rooted fare like Luby’s serving tastier food that was also usually cheaper. The competition greatly hastened the demise of cafeterias, sooner in Houston than in lesser restaurant cities in the state.
Luby’s had its partisans, though. I enjoy reading Mimi Swartz’s monthly columns about Houston and Texas in the New York Times. She is a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly who appears from her writing to live in the Heights and in it recently wrote a paean to Luby’s. After reading the article, I began to doubt her judgement. I should try, I will try, to limit that assessment to her food likes.
Luby’s board voted to dissolve the struggling company last month. It was recently reported that local restaurateurs Christopher and Harris Pappas of Pappas restaurant fame, and who had run Luby’s since 2001 and own a substantial stake in the corporation, filed paperwork so that they may possibly bid to buy its assets. After much regional publicity about its demise, we might actually still see some Luby’s in the future. I certainly don’t need to, nor its disturbingly square fish.
Entrance to Luby's offices, for now, in downtown Houston
One of those very memorable meals you have in your life, one of the first for me, was at Anthony’s when it was in the Chelsea Market on Montrose. I was being feted by my parents in 1987 for a birthday and I had the osso buco, the first time I had osso buco. Anthony’s preparation was braised in sage, lemon, thyme and basil and served in a rich Barolo wine sauce with a side of risotto. The plump, slowly cooked and properly tender veal shank was absolutely delicious; rich, nearly decadent, but also refined and deeply flavored, and well-complemented by the wine sauce and perfectly cooked, soft risotto. Different than the typical Milan-bred version, that is still the best osso buco that I’ve ever had.
Of the restaurants that Vallone had over the years, including Anthony’s, Grotto, La Griglia, Vallone’s (twice), Los Tonyos – a short-lived Tex-Mex concept on Shepherd that I actually quite liked – and Ciao Bello, it began and ended with the eponymous Tony’s, which remains on Richmond in Greenway Plaza.
Tony’s was Tony Vallone’s first and most iconic restaurant was his only restaurant when he passed away last week. The first incarnation opened in 1965 on far-less-busy Sage Road as what has been called a “spaghetti house” when Vallone was only in his early twenties. In a few years it transformed into a mostly French restaurant taking its cues from the grand dames of French dining in Manhattan like La Caravelle and Lutèce. It was then and remained a destination for local socialites, the business elite, visiting celebrities and even presidents, who were more than ably cosseted in its clubby Post Oak Boulevard address where it moved in 1972. Tony’s proudly served “The poetry of French food” as it proclaimed in a 1975 Texas Monthly advertisement, and doing it very well. The year before the same magazine thought it was the best restaurant in Houston. Tony’s kitchen eventually became more Italian following the passion of its owner, whose parentage, I understood, had antecedents in Sorrento, down the coast from Naples, and Corleone in Sicily where many Houston Italian-Americans have roots. His culinary heart seemed to be in Naples, which showed on the menu and, more so, in later restaurants.
John Mariani, the longtime restaurant critic for Esquire now at Forbes, was a big fan of Tony Vallone’s restaurants. For his list of best new restaurants in the country for the magazine, Anthony’s was on it in 1985, Grotto in 1989, La Griglia in 1991, Anthony’s in its new location in 1994, and Tony’s after its move in 2005. Anthony’s was even named the best new restaurant in the country in its last incarnation in Highland Village. High praise, indeed, coming from a well-traveled, seasoned writer based in the New York area and an expert on Italian food, the author of The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink. In fact, Mariani listed both Anthony’s and Tony’s among the most authentic Italian restaurants in this country in 1985 joining Tony May’s ambitious, beautiful Palio and Lidia Bastianich’s Felida in New York, and Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino and Primi plus the groundbreaking Rex Il Ristorante in Los Angeles.
My favorite of the Vallone establishments was Grotto. In part, because it was the most approachable and affordable, very important for someone just out of college during its early heydays. The food was – and is, as the menu has been stuck in amber since Landry’s purchased it – mostly Neapolitan-inspired with some items and tastes from Sicily along with the very thin-crust Roman-style pizza tonda, all done very well. Not quite authentically Italian but tasting Italian for the most part, and tasting great, regardless of provenance, more vibrant and stylish than most, especially at the prices. It was usually one of the pasta preparations or veal for me then prefaced by a wonderful breadbasket that included then then exotic, Sardinian cracker-like pane carasau. The setting and atmosphere in the evenings were terrific, drawing the very well-heeled and still-pretty-after-many-decades, but also a range of ages and with an smart, upscale casualness that made it inviting to me. Well-made Neapolitan-themed fare will do that for me, too, in most places, to be honest. I used to even stop by the restaurant to just pick up cans of the Vallone labeled San Marzano tomatoes when it sold those.
In addition to the quality of the fare and the attentive service at Tony’s, especially, Tony Vallone had an excellent sense of style and design. I don’t believe that he received enough credit for that, and it extended to all of his restaurants, at least from the 1980s on. Grotto featured a sprawling, fun and often bawdy, well-rendered mural adorning the walls and columns featuring Naples-inspired figures street scenes and those from the Italian commedia dell’arte that was part of the draw of the restaurant. La Grigila was maybe even more attractive, with its seaside motif, if more restrained in the content of its décor. Anthony’s, after those two, was completely different, but strikingly handsome. The latest incarnation of Tony’s, which opened in 2005, has an intriguing modern setting, light but sumptuous, punctuated with dramatic late-century works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles.
But, for me, the fondest memories from the Vallone establishments are primarily about the food. Here is a dish that can be made a home, a recipe from Grotto that was featured in the Vallone restaurants newsletter for the Fall / Winter 1993. I’ve made this a number of times over the years to great success. Surprising success, at that. It’s easy, just be sure to have good quality ingredients. It takes its name from the island off the coast of Naples, in case you are wondering. Don’t know if it has any connection to Ischia, but the name sounds cool.
Mozzarella Ischia – Hot Fresh Mozzarella with Tomatoes, Olives, and Sweet Peppers
Mozzarella di Bufala – 3 pounds
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – ½ cup
Garlic – 6 to 8 cloves, finely minced
Flat-leaf parsley – 1 cup, chopped
Balsamic vinegar – 1 tablespoon
Red onion – 1 cup, finely chopped
Gaeta olives – 20, pitted and cut in half
Dried oregano – 1 tablespoon
Tomatoes, large – 6, chopped into good-sized pieces; tomatoes need to be very fresh
Basil – 36 large leaves, torn into pieces just before serving
Red bell peppers – 4, roasted and sliced
Sugar – 1 tablespoon
Salt and pepper to taste
Serves 12 as an appetizer. I usually have thick slices from a crusty loaf as an accompaniment.
Part of a luncheon at Tony's a few years ago.
Working from home was a little stressful at first with the extent and disruption of the pandemic being brand new. Looking forward to a cocktail at the end of the workday, which might have stretched a little longer toiling from home, helped both make the afternoons go more quickly and provide some kind of demarcation between the work life and that of home. Maybe, it was a the alcohol that helped, too.
Prompted by my desire to find a recipe for margaritas that I enjoyed and could do a passable job with at the house, aided by Costco’s price for a 5-pound bag of limes for just $4.39, I’ve had a lot of limes to work with. I was steered toward cocktails that might use lime in addition to those margarita trials. Gin and tonics, of course, but I had to expand my repertoire.
Other than for the margaritas, the mantra was easy and refreshing for our warm climate. Ice. Like most Americans I demand it with spirits most of the time. I didn’t mind squeezing a lime or two, but nothing much more than that other than stirring and sometimes shaking. And no garnishes. Other than for the margaritas, I generally wanted lower alcohol, too. I had grown to appreciate the Italian approach to the apertivo, the pre-dinner cocktails that not only provide some alcoholic pleasure, though not a lot, and also help open the appetite often with their hints of bitterness. For that, vermouth and soda didn’t work out that well for me. I didn’t really like any of the versions that I made, with Cocchi Americano and another semi-sweet vermouth, Dolin Blanc. Dolin Dry, which I employ for my martinis, didn’t do the trick either, but at least one Italian product did work.
A big take-away from the nearly daily mixing research was that Fever Tree is near necessity for my palate, both its tonic waters and its club soda. Another is that lime really does help a great many cocktails. Using limes and lemons – usually half of each at a time – generally makes the drinks more vibrant, refreshing and tastier, adding some welcome balance to the spirit, in part. Below is a quintet of easy mixers that I’ve quite liked in recent months.
(Irish) Whiskey and Soda
Tullamore Dew, a smooth and easily enjoyable Irish whiskey, with more balance and flavor than the most popular Irish renditions, was reintroduced to me by the fine folks at The Mucky Duck, where it is used in their excellent version of the Irish Coffee.
Two ounces of Tullamore Dew mixed with five ounces of Fever Tree club soda over plenty of ice with two lemon quarters squeezed in, stirred a few times. Fever Tree’s tonic water very conveniently comes in 8-packs for just about 5-ounce cans that makes for a single drink. I’ve only seen those at Spec’s, though. I prefer lemon to lime for this and the similar Scotch and soda, but lime works quite well, too.
Scotch and Soda
Scotch and Soda / Mud in your eye / Baby, do I feel high, oh me oh my / Do I feel high. The opening words and melody of “Scotch and Soda” from the Kingston Trio recorded in the early 1960s had been a memory of my youth from an LP of my mom’s, many years before my first taste of scotch. Very oddly and coincidentally, the song was discovered by one of the members in the home of the parents of Tom Seaver, Tom Terrific.
This is a very good way to use an affordably priced blended Scotch. Save the more distinctive single malts for sipping solo. Two ounces of good blended Scotch – Famous Grouse is what I am using now – mixed with five ounces of Fever Tree club soda over plenty of ice with the juice of half of a lemon, stirred a few times, just like above.
Campari and Soda
It took me quite a while to appreciate the assertively bitter Campari, maybe Italy’s most iconic liqueur. In addition to an occasional well-made Negroni, I’ve grown to like Campari and soda, usually as a pre-dinner refresher and a liter bottle of the bold red concoction has been getting replaced at a greater clip in recent months. I mix at least two parts Fever Tree club soda to one of Campari along with the juice of half a lime over ice is often an enjoyable and relatively low alcohol starter..
Gin and Tonic
I’ve long liked gin and tonics, mostly as a warm weather cocktail, much of the year here. I grew a greater appreciation of these with the wonderful, inventive Spanish-style gin and tonics done up at BCN. I haven’t tried to replicate the somewhat elaborate versions there, as I’m sure I’ll fall woefully short of its skilled bartenders, but I’ve come to appreciate the quality of Fever Tree tonic waters. That had been affirmed at Public Services through a few, or many, gin and tonics there. It is the tonic portion of the gin and tonic that is the most important part of the equation as it’s the largest part, so high-quality tonic water is key. It makes a big difference. For me, it’s Fever Tree. Its tonic waters, in all its forms, I much prefer to the similarly priced ones from Q Tonic.
Concerning the fun part, the gin, though long my go-to for martinis, I’ve determined that London Dry gin, with its familiar taste featuring prominence of juniper flavors, is also my favorite for gin and tonics. The ones I like the best are the ones among the most widely found and modestly priced: Bombay, Tanqueray, Tanqueray No. 10, and Plymouth’s. Ford’s has been well employed at bars and restaurants.
For me, an ideal has been either Citrus and Mediterranean Fever Tree tonic waters mixed at 2-to-1 or 2 ½-to-1 ratio to a good London Dry gin over ice with the juice of half a lime and stirred gently a few times.
This drink, a popular way to take the edge of the heat in far west Texas, came to my attention in recent years, likely from Texas Monthly. I had my first one at Eight Row Flint and was nonplussed. As it got warmer here in the spring, and with all the limes I had courtesy of Costco packaging ethos, I thought I could actually do better at home. I did, with some guidance.
Adapted from a recipe in Texas Monthly, I have been using two ounces of a nicely priced but well-done blanco tequila – mostly El Jimador and its pricier sibling Espolon – two ounces of lime Juice, which usually means two limes, poured into a pint or shaker glass with a salted rim and filled about two-thirds the way with ice. Topo Chico is then poured over the rest and stirred a few times. I’ve that the salt helps to balance the flavors of the tequila and lime, and its acidity. There is a reason that margaritas are served with salted rims. For a spicy kick, my brother-in-law suggested using jalapeño slices. I prefer serranos. It works well, two thin horizontal slices should provide sufficient kick for most. Three was too many for my tastes.
These are the easy ones. Look for information about the more involved, and alcoholic, ones in the near future.
At a recent virtual wine dinner at Roma in Houston, befitting the wines from a top Barbera producer in Piedmont, the first course, the antipasto, was veal tonnato. It was easily my favorite of the three courses that night. Veal tonnato is a classic cold veal dish in a tuna sauce usually served as a starter, which I have long really enjoyed. For those unfamiliar with the preparation, veal and tuna might seem an odd combination, but it is actually a wonderful pairing. If you enjoy canned tuna, in a mild form, and mayonnaise, you will like veal tonnato. Served chilled or almost room temperature, it works well during summertime.
With the often very warm weather throughout much of the year, veal tonnato would be a welcome sight nearly year round at many Italian restaurants in Houston, but it is rarely found. There isn’t much veal on Houston Italian restaurant menus, for one. And, veal in tuna sauce might seem a little obscure to many. Not only here; veal tonnato has not really found too often on Italian menus around the country. Looking at around 650 Italian restaurant menus over the years, veal tonnato showed up on just 4% of them. The dish is a specialty of eastern Piedmont and that’s also found in the adjacent region south of Milan. The cuisine of that area, lauded in Italy, hasn’t been found at too many restaurants here. It’s shame that it’s tough to find when heading out. You might need to make it yourself:
Veal round or shoulder – 1 ¾ pound
White wine vinegar – 1 tablespoon
Olive Oil – 1 tablespoon
Salt – 1 teaspoon
Canned tuna, drained – 7 ounces
Anchovy filets, drained – 3
Capers, drained and rinsed – 2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon for garnishing
Egg yolks, hard-boiled – 2
Olive oil – 3 tablespoons
Lemon – 1
Cook the veal:
Make the sauce:
Adapted from The Silver Spoon cookbook.
A more artistic version of veal tonnato at a restaurant at the Enoclub restaurant in Alba, Piedmont a couple of years ago. Maybe a little bit blurry because of all the wine.
A few years ago, at a media dinner, I was seated at the same small table as Robb Walsh, the estimable former restaurant critic at the Houston Press and cookbook author. It was a fun evening and during it Robb made the assertion that the chili at the longtime local hot dog chain James Coney Island served some very laudable chili. I disagreed. But, in ignorance I later realized.
At the time, my experience with James Coney Island – though it had included a great number of visits, well, drive-throughs over the years – was limited to their basic hot dogs, called Coneys, always ordered all the way. These were somewhat a staple of youth and, in recent years, an order after a pint or two at happy hour. My usual order since my youth was a few Cheese Coneys all the way. These feature very basic hot dogs and similarly basic steamed buns along with the noticeable yellow mustard, a chili sauce or Coney Sauce, as it is monikered on the menu, then Kraft Cheese Whiz – dispensed by cheese gun – and chopped raw onions atop. Though satiating hunger pains, for years, a meal of these were almost always quickly regrettable, often quite a bit so; even so when my taste buds might have been a little dulled. The hot dogs, for years, have not seemed to be of particularly good quality, the buns fresh but cheap-tasting, and the thin Coney Sauce was not at all worth a visit, if helping the below average creations.
That Coney Sauce is not the chili I had long assumed. That chili that Robb touted – and that makes its way on top of James Coney Island’s better hot dogs – is actually really good. Thick, properly Texas-style chili that’s all-beef (unless ordered otherwise), long-simmered, it is nicely flavorful. Not surprisingly it’s a bit beefy, and rich, and works extremely well with the Texas Classic All Beef Dog and the Chili Cheese Gourmet Hot Dog. These are both worth ordering, as are nearly all of the Classic and Gourmet hot dogs. I had given up on James Coney Island until I realized the quality of the Classic and Gourmet dogs.
The crux of the menu of James Coney Island is still the hot dogs. The hot dogs come in three levels: Coneys, Classic, and Gourmet. The Coneys are mediocre and worse basic hot dogs that range from $2.09 mostly unadorned to $2.09 plain to $2.59 with the lame Coney Sauce and Cheez Whiz mentioned above; Classics are made with fine-quality Nolan Ryan all-beef hot dogs at $3.99 with better potato buns; and Gourmet, with Hebrew National hot dogs, about the best the commercially available hot dogs, and buns from Slow Dough and the like. I have really enjoyed the Classic and Gourmet versions. The Gourmet ones are not worth the extra couple of dollars, though. The hot dogs might be better, but only slightly so. The pretzel buns sometimes used are certainly higher quality, but with the thicker texture, sometimes don’t work as well.
If craving a tasty hot dog, or chili, do go to one of the James Coney Island outputs, the Classic and Gourmet hot dogs can be quite delicious. The Classic ones are a fine value, too. And, very nicely these days of needing to be safe, if not from excessive calories and cholesterol, you can get food at James Coney Island via a drive-thru.
James Coney Island
17 Houston area locations
There is not a lot of Riesling grown in Italy. For example, in Friuli in the northeast – one of the leading areas for Riesling in the country – it accounts for only 0.16% of the total in the Friuli Grave DOC that makes up most of the region. But, where it grows it can be made into some very good wines. I’ve had nice ones from Alto Adige, the Langhe in Piedmont and from the Oltrepo Pavese, south of Milan.
Italian Rieslings are usually drier and crisper than then benchmark ones, those from Germany or Alsace. And, for me, the Italian versions have less of the signature flavor of the varietal that is not my favorite, is it beeswax? Or petroleum (or maybe really kerosene), as I’ve also read? My long ago work as an operator sampling those tanks in a refinery makes me think it’s beeswax, even if I’m only really familiar with the aromas rather than the flavor of the refined products.
An Italian Riesling that I very much liked recently was Aquila del Torre in its only expression of the varietal from Friuli north of the city of Udine and in the foothills of the Julian Alps. With some citrus on the nose, the first sensation on the tongue was a bit of very nice effervescence from the noticeable acidity then some fruit, mostly lemon, a hint of minerality, some complexity, dryness with its 1 gram of residual sugar per liter, and well-balanced with a decently long finish. Medium-bodied, it is just 12.5% alcohol, welcome in these days of heat-battered grapes often turning into blockbuster boozers, even whites. Aquila del Torre Riesling is made with natural yeasts, stainless steel tanks, and is aged for twelve months on the lees, this giving it a slight bit more umph than the usual Riesling.
I found it flavorful and easily enjoyable. It complemented a simply prepared sautéed white fish, though I probably liked it more as an aperitif, even as an aperitivo.
The wine is available in the US, at least in California and New York, but it might take some digging to find. Prices seem to range from about $17 to $25 per bottle, very fair tariffs
An article in the current issue of the Wine Spectator makes a couple of recommendations for prosciutto, both from American producers. One is from Casella’s, which is priced at $15 for three ounces. The other is La Quercia that sells for $12 for just two ounces. Not cheap. And, not the lauded prosciutto produced in Italy. Nearly a decade ago, a very prominent Italian restaurateur told me that he thought that domestic prosciutto like La Quercia had come a long way, but was still not nearly the quality of what was produced in Italy and were fairly expensive for what it was.
At Spec’s you can get true Italian prosciutto for a comparative song, which I do occasionally. Principe brand Prosciutto di Parma aged 16 months sells for $16.99 pound. Same-priced is the slightly sweeter, Prosciutto di San Daniele that is aged 14 months. The richer and even more flavorful 600-day-aged – about 20 months – Prosciutto di Parma is $19.59, still a value. Each of these are quite cheap compared to those from Casella’s and La Quercia, which work out to $60 and $72 per pound, respectively, which seems quite steep to me.
Not only much cheaper, but these Italian-produced hams are more delectable. Myself and my family have had very good luck with all three types, which are sliced when purchased. A star among starters, it can tough not too eat much at one time out of hand. Prosciutto can be one of the best reasons to visit Spec’s, at least the Smith Street location.
I was on a webinar the other day about how restaurateurs are rethinking the fine dining model during the disruption caused by the pandemic. One of the panelists was the owner of the Il Gattopardo Group of Neapolitan-rooted restaurants in New York and the chairman of the Gruppo Italiano, which promotes authentic Italian food products and dining, Gianfranco Sorrentino. He made an assertion that struck a chord: “Nothing can replace the experience of dining at a busy Italian restaurant.” Something that is not currently available in New York, or here.
Though I have greatly enjoyed busy, quality restaurants of all stripes over the years, maybe there is something special about busy Italian – and also Italian-American – restaurants at dinnertime: the oft-gracious and gregarious owners and staff, that there is wine at every table, the greater volubility, and the seeming pleasure of the patrons, maybe more so than at other types of restaurants.
The comment made me think of some of the more memorable or enjoyable times at a “busy Italian restaurant” over the years. Grotto in Houston, during its glory days in its original location in the early 1990s when it garnered some national attention, was a go-to first date place for me for years with its usually excellent, vibrant Americanized Italian fare that drew on owner Tony Vallone’s familial ties to the Naples area in always bustling, festive setting aided by slightly bawdy murals and in an atmosphere that I found eminently comfortable. It also drew plentiful numbers of patrons with a lot more money and taste than I had at the time, leading me to believe I knew more than I did about dining Italian-style.
Without the same type of style, though as busy, or busier, was Cunetto House of Pasta in St. Louis where I traveled for work later that decade. It was packed each of the few times I went, usually having to wait with an appropriately stiff drink or two in the homey, somewhat tacky (or just Midwestern) bar area before proceeding to the dining room that was invariably filled with pasty and plus-sized St. Louisans to fill up on wonderfully over-sauced and tasty plates of Italian-American pastas or tender, succulent pieces of veal along with the din of diners doing the same, happily.
Il Latini in Florence was recommended by the owners of the pensione where I stayed along with a couple friends and it initially seemed that it might have been a tourist trap as we waited in with other visitors in a queue for a table, but the food and experience were terrific – excellent versions of the robust Tuscan classics including an entire roasted rabbit on a spit that evening and well-made, too-easy-to-drink vino rosso della casa served in fun 1 ½-liter fiaschi – and all for a comparative song. There is a reason why it has long been a Bib Gourmand selection in the Michelin guide, and a wise detour for a couple of hours of gastronomic fun while in Florence.
Maybe a year or two after that initial visit to Il Latini, my brother and I were in New Orleans for a pre-wedding celebration for our other brother. That first evening we ended up at the very popular Eleven 79, a Creole-accented Italian-American that shuttered a few years ago. The visit to a prime table in the middle of a very crowded, boisterous dining room, courtesy of a connected local, was prefaced by an arguably obscene number of drinks, in typical New Orleans tourist fashion, and possibly helped in the enjoyment of the crawfish bisque and tender, excellent veal scallops cooked with spinach.
On a first night in another city some years later, Sorrento, La Basilica was the busy Italian restaurant that my family and I visited to great luck. Sitting in one of the numerous tables in a small piazza adjacent to the restaurant, both the Neapolitan classics, especially the pastas and preparations with local shellfish, and the atmosphere, were excellent. The wine, beginning with a top-notch Prosecco from the Cartizze region and then a fair amount of local Fiano and Greco white wines, aided it all.
The most recent of the most enjoyable visits to a busy Italian restaurant was to the least Italian of these. It was a couple of summers ago, again with my family, to Franceschetta 58 in Modena, the sibling to the high-flying Osteria Francescana, which had just been named the best restaurant in the world for a second time. Its cuisine, somewhat reflective of its staff, was wide-ranging and not necessarily all Italian. No matter, it was in Italy and a lot fun. And, I had a really tasty pasta dish – Abruzzese-style chitarra spaghetti with bread crumbs and an anchovy sauce – in any case. The visit was particularly memorable, in large part, because we nearly didn’t eat there at all, arriving late in the lunch hour without a reservation and with ten people. Initially turned away, the very accommodating front of the house folks, eventually found room for us, scattered in several tables in the small dining room. The closeness of tables and the conviviality of the guests from around much of the globe and the waitstaff made for a memorable visit complemented by interesting, mostly all delicious fare.
These are first of the visits that come to mind. Yes, there does seem to be something about “a busy Italian restaurant.”
Paccheri with local seafood at La Basilica in Sorrento
Just recently, the best burger and pizza joints have shuttered, Bernie’s Burger Bus and Dolce Vita, respectively. The best stop for kolaches, by far and away the best place for kolaches in the area, in my opinion, is still open, the Kolache Shoppe, with two locations.
As I try to support worthwhile local restaurants as much as I can, safely and daily, I’ve visited the Kolache Shoppe a few times, with the drive-thru at the Heights spot being especially handy. It’s been wonderful; I’ve had a couple of the best meals from there since the shuttering of the restaurants in March. The kolaches, both the traditional and savory, are the best of breed. The savory ones are technically called klobasniky in the plural in Czech, at least for the pigs-in-a-blanket versions, but seemingly only the uptight writers or editors at Texas Monthly really care about that. They are all kolaches in the common parlance here: the traditional Old World-derived fruit-or-cheese-filled pastries, those sausage-centric pigs-in-a-blanket, the nicely caloric breakfast ones often with Tex-Mex fillings along with the newer styles featuring beef brisket or boudin inside. All the versions at the Kolache Shoppe are excellent.
The quality begins with the dough, just slightly sweet, airy, fresh-tasting, and flavorful, unfailingly complementing whatever filling it surrounds. It’s the best kolache dough I’ve encountered in memory. And, those fillings are usually terrific, too. Breakfast sausage, egg, pickled jalapeño and cheddar cheese; Pinkerton’s brisket, egg, cheddar cheese and pickled jalapeño; Kiolbassa brand sausage link and cheddar cheese; and strawberry and lemon cream, both of these topped with a judicious amount of sugar, are a few of the ones I’ve really enjoyed in recent weeks.
I’ve eaten a lot of kolaches over the years, most of them not that great or worse – mostly courtesy of The Kolache Factory, which is cheap and convenient, a once guilty pleasure, often when hungover. There have been better ones than those around here, if not quite the Kolache Shoppe level like from Original Kolache Shoppe on Telephone Road, a long-shuttered place called Bright and Early, and ones from Underbelly and also Monica Pope at the Saturday farmers market. Kolache eating in earnest for me began with trips to and from Austin years ago when I was in school and afterwards. Weikel’s in La Grange became a near-must stop either way, and was long a benchmark for me. It’s been eons since I’ve been there or nearby Hruska’s in Ellinger. I’ll need to revisit those and probably a few others before stating definitively that the Kolache Shoppe serves the best kolaches in the state. I haven’t had any better thus far, and that includes all four places in West, Texas, the small Czech-American community north of Waco that is known for its kolaches, and Kenner’s Kolache Bakery upstate in Arlington that has a good reputation, the furthest from home I’ve had kolaches.
No matter where the Kolache Shoppe might eventually rank among the best kolache shops of the state in my research, it continues to make brilliant kolaches right here in Houston.
The Kolache Shoppe
3945 Richmond (just east of Weslayan), 77027, (713) 626-4580
1031 Heights Boulevard (entrance on Yale just south of 11th Street), 77008, (281) 846-6499
Last night was going to be the first night in the villa my family had rented overlooking Verona. After that it was to be a week in Trieste as a home base to explore the surrounding areas, both in its region of Friuli and nearby in Croatia and Slovenia. We did this last a couple of years ago in and near three different cities. Parma was one of them. We ate a lot of prosciutto there. Prosciutto crudo, the familiar raw version served thinly sliced.
Parma gives its name to the famed prosciutto di Parma, which is made in the vicinity. In the region of Trieste, the similar salted and air-cured raw ham produced nearby is prosciutto di San Daniele. It’s just as revered as its Parma cousin, if maybe a little less known over here, as it is produced in lesser quantities. I’ve found it is slightly sweeter in taste, but quite similar, and a similarly excellent product. I was planning to eat a lot of it while staying in Trieste, probably Verona, too.
In Parma, the recommended wine to accompany prosciutto di Parma eaten as antipasto or a snack is locally produced, fizzy low-alcohol Lambrusco in the amabile, or off-dry style. It is an excellent pairing, better than with the dry version of Lambrusco that I had drank more frequently. In recent contact with wine producers in Friuli I queried them on what they drink with the regionally produced prosciutto di San Daniele. A couple replied it was Friuliano, typically a dry, light- or medium-bodied white wine that is often aromatic, with notes of pears or citrus, and a bit of welcome minerality. I quite enjoyed the Friulianos during the week I spent in the region some years ago. I remember that it was an excellent match for the seafood we ate, and I’m sure it complemented the prosciutto quite nicely, if my memory is a bit hazy on that. One producer recommended Pinot Grigio ramato, a unique richer style in which the grape must is in contact with the skins for about 10 hours or so. I was looking forward to trying that, too, especially since it is tough to find here.
I found it interesting that wildly different wines, the slightly sweet, effervescent, light red wine and a couple richer white wines might complement the not-so-different-tasting hams. I was looking forward to confirmation of the latter this week and next. Though that won’t come to pass, I might have to do some prosciutto pairings at home in its place. It won’t be as enjoyable, but good prosciutto and good wine are always fairly enjoyable wherever you are, I’ve found.
An advertising poster hanging in the only commercial prosciutto di Carpegna factory I visited a few years ago.
Today is the last day of service at Bernie’s Burger Bus in Bellaire, on Bellaire. Bernie’s, I believe is the best burger joint in Houston. Greg Morago reported in the Chronicle that the restaurant was beset not by the effects of the pandemic that the business was undercapitalized as it was expanding to its fourth location in Missouri City. It’s a shame. Though none of the locations were convenient for me, I was always greatly rewarded with the drive when I made it: meaty, juicy patties cooked to near-perfection complemented with a witty and appropriate selection of toppings and excellent buns and served with fries done better than most. I’ll especially miss The Cheerleader. Picante.
With this closing and that of Dolce Vita last weekend, the city has, in quick succession, lost its best burger and pizza joints. The pandemic can’t be entirely blamed for either. Dolce Vita, the property at least, had been for sale, as owner Marco Wiles looked to streamline his collection of restaurants that also included Da Marco and Poscol, which remain open. But, as the adverse conditions continue, it’s likely that some other local dining gems won’t make it. I recommend trying to support those that you can.
To be honest, I often feel embarrassed to order Pinot Grigio at most restaurants or even to pick a bottle at the wine shop, if a little less so at the supermarket – especially if I have a bag of Cheetos in tow. I don’t feel compelled to do so very often, but that there might be others to appease and a constrained budget to adhere to.
Pinot Grigio doesn’t have a great reputation among many serious wine drinkers. I never see it on lists at my favorite local wine bars, for example. Much, too much Pinot Grigio is bland and fairly dull. But, that inoffensiveness along with is ubiquity and affordability have helped make it popular. And it is popular. Pinot Grigio is the most exported varietal wine from Italy, with a huge amount of it coming to this country. Just those from the Delle Venezie DOC – which covers a huge amount of territory in northeastern Italy and are sure to be in your supermarket – sold over 220 million bottles just of Pinot Grigio last year.
There are Pinot Grigios I do like, and those are usually from Friuli – the Italian region abutting Slovenia and Croatia in the northeast of the country. When shopping or Pinot Grigio in the past decade or so, I have almost always looked for “Friuli” on the label, the front of the label. If not Friuli, "Collio" is another one, a small area in Friuili. In the current issue of the Wine Spectator, longtime Italian-focused editor Alison Napjus mentioned she also enjoyed the Pinot Grigios from Friuli, which she’s found to work well with shellfish and grilled seafood, in addition to its expected easy sippability. Pinot Grigio from Friuli is typically richer and more flavorful often with pleasant notes of nectarine and melon, and having more apparent acidity while still usually light and quite approachable. These can be enjoyable with lighter seafood preparations and even more so for me, can work very well as an aperitivo.
A few labels from Friuli for Pinot Grigio you might want to look for here include Attems, Gradis’ciutta, Jermann, Pighin, Radikon and Vistorta. I am not at all self-conscious purchasing wines like these.
Mike Riccetti is a longtime Houston-based food writer and former editor for Zagat, and not incidentally the author of three editions of Houston Dining on the Cheap.