An Italian, a Mexican, and two Jews walk into a bar…

My lunch with Tony, Manny, and Marty…

Above: At lunch on Friday, I had the great pleasure to break bread with one of the top Italian restaurateurs in this country, Tony Vallone (left). That’s his good friend, and colleague and good friend of my cousin Marty, Manny Leal, right.

Let’s face it: there’s not a lot of great Italian food in Texas. Since moving here a year ago, I’ve found some great authentic-style Italian and Italian-American pizza, notably in San Antonio and Dallas. Otherwise, I cannot honestly say that I have found Italian cuisine that Tracie B and I truly and unreservedly enjoy.

But that all changed when cousin Marty first treated me to dinner at Tony’s in Houston (where, honestly, I cannot afford to dine but have had the great privilege to enjoy many meals now, thanks to the generosity of Marty and wife Joanne).

Above: Following a little cheese-crisp nosh, the medley of regional Italian first courses opened with some wonderful gnudi, “nude dumplings,” ravioli without the casing, a classic dish from the Maremma in Tuscany, traditionally made with nettles.

Tony and his passion for regional Italian cuisine first came to my attention way back in 1998 when I was working as an editor for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana and the regional and rustico Italian cuisine craze was just about to explode. The magazine ran a 750-word piece on Tony in the front of the book. What I didn’t know then (and only would find out later) was that Tony wasn’t doing regional Italian cuisine because it had become hip or trendy. He was doing it because it’s what he had and has always done.

Above: The ravioli d’astice (langoustine ravioli) were sinfully good. The sauce for this dish, which could have been prepared in Naples or Venice, was made using the corallo (literally, the coral) of the crustacean: when harvested during mating season, the females carry delicious coral-colored roe that gives the sauce its unique color. True mastery of pastamaking is revealed in the consistency and lightness of filled pasta. Tony’s approached divinity.

“I had to go down to the docks and buy the calamari myself from the fishermen,” said Tony, reminiscing about the opening of Tony’s second location in 1972. “They didn’t sell them: they only used them as bait!” Tony was born in Houston, to a Sicilian mother and Neapolitan father, and has worked in the restaurant industry in one capacity or another since he was 11 years old. While Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects was spoken at home, a visiting uncle — the first in their family to achieve a university degree, in anesthesiology — instructed Tony as a child in “standard” Italian.

Above: The delicious amatriciana at Tony’s is made rigorously with guanciale (the cured pork jowl of central Italy, not prosciutto or pancetta) and dressed with pecorino (not Parmigiano Reggiano). From Tuscany to the Veneto, from Naples to Latium, Italian “regional” cuisine sings like Pavarotti (a frequent visitor to Tony’s) at the restaurant.

Since he first opened the doors of his kitchen in 1965 (originally in one of his father’s gaming rooms), Tony’s top sources for regional Italian recipes, he told me, were Carnacina (the father of “regional Italian cuisine,” whose works were first published in Italian in 1961 and first translated in 1969) and the many itinerant Italian cooks and chefs who would come to Houston, where the oil business lured many easterners and Europeans (and their cosmopolitan palates) early on.

Above: One of Tony’s early supporters was his early landlord, the legendary Houston developer Gerald Hines, who encouraged Tony to develop his skills in French cuisine. This Provence-inspired tuna paillard, dressed with a fresh fava beans, heirloom tomatoes, basil, and a classic vinaigrette, perhaps bespeaks an era when French, not Italian, cuisine dominated fine dining in this country.

A turning point came when Houston developer Gerald Hines told Tony that he was not going to renew the restaurant’s lease because the building was to be razed to make way for construction of the Houston Galleria. Hines was willing to give Tony a new and larger space, the developer told him, on the condition that he cultivate his French dishes. The new menu, unveiled in 1972, included fish bonne femme and beef filet au poivre. “We used trout instead of sole because it wasn’t available then for the bonne femme,” recalled Tony. “We used gulf oysters instead of mussels!”

Above: The litmus test for any great Italian restaurant, espresso. The schiuma (the foam) was sublime.

A subsequent visit from Houston social columnist Maxine Messinger resulted in a nearly 30-year culinary love affair. “You’re in trouble,” Maxine told Tony, “I like your restaurant!” By the mid-1970s, Tony’s had become — and continues to be — Houston’s top see-and-be-seen destination. “I’ve cooked for eight U.S. presidents,” said Tony, “six of them sitting presidents.” (I wondered: did the others eat standing up? I guess it doesn’t hurt that two of the last three presidents were from Texas!)

Above: This man… this man… no, he’s not a rebi. He’s my cousin Marty (my dad’s first cousin) and getting to know him and getting to spend time with him has been one of the most delightful however unexpected surprises since I moved to Texas to be with Tracie B more than a year ago. And the best part? He LOVES good food and fine wine. Marty, I’m so very glad that you, Joanne, Dana, and Neil are part of our lives.

But despite the glamor and limelight he enjoyed by adding Francophile cuisine to his offerings, Tony continued to travel to Italy and to New York, cultivating his knowledge of Italian cuisine and authentic regional ingredients. And most importantly, he remained true to his Italian roots. I believe wholeheartedly that his “linguistic” connection to Italy (the fact that he spoke Italian as a child) is a big part of the his genuine connection to truly authentic and truly delicious Italian cuisine. (Have you ever heard Mario Batali speak Italian?) More on this later.

I’d like to think that Tony enjoyed chatting with me the other day: he promised me another meeting and more tales from the wild west of Italian cuisine in a time long before Whole Foods Market carried Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. I’ll look forward to it.

Thanks again, Tony, for an unforgettable meal, and thanks cousin Marty, for turning me on to great Italian cuisine in Texas! Who knew?

8 Responses to An Italian, a Mexican, and two Jews walk into a bar…

  1. Whitney says:

    oh my lord. i need some Tony Vallone in my life!!

  2. adrian says:

    Mmm dunno about the leafy green thing (can’t tell if it’s basilico)and what appears to be either spaghettini or capellini in the amatriciana:-)

  3. Do Bianchi says:

    @Whitney Tony was such a sweetheart and he LOVES to talk about food, ingredients, recipes, etc. One of these Brunellos will have to have more fun in Texas!

    @Adrian dogmatism is disallowed at Do Bianchi! Seriously, I agree that bucatini should be the pasta of choice for the Amatriciana but authenticity here lies partly in drawing inspiration from the real deal… Is a ragù 100% authentic if you finish it with some cream? I don’t care: I just want it to taste good! You’d like Tony’s food, I’m sure…

  4. tracieb says:

    when are we going?

    i agree, 2B. while i find myself criticizing so much of the “cucina italiana’ that i see around here, i would be happy with well-cooked pasta and a sauce that isn’t cream-based.

    while i’m not sure why some restaurateurs forgo classic, almost obligatory pairings, if the separate elements are in place (al dente pasta, well-prepared sauce, correct sauce:pasta ratio), it’s alright by me.

    also, so glad too to get to know marty, joanne, et al! hope to see y’all soon. btw, what a regal pic…correct?! ;)

  5. adrian says:

    Good points Jeremy and Tracie B…authenticity is relative. Living in Parma made me a foodie Taliban…should relax now living in the land of Korean tacos!

  6. Thanks for the descriptions and the photos – looks delicious. Glad I am going to Donato Enoteca tomorrow for a piece of Italian heaven, and a patently non-Italian 1998 vs 2007 Chateauneuf-du-pape face-off. Never been to Houston unfortunately, but Tony sounds like my kind of restaurant, although it must be a bit shocking when you say that you cannot afford to dine there – even a fancy fella like you!? :). How much does one spend there to have a divine experience?

  7. Do Bianchi says:

    @Gary Tony’s is just one of those amazing rooms where you can’t help but feel “fabulous” the minute you walk in. Let’s just put it this way: the fabulousness is incorporated into the price. ;-)

    I cannot wait to try Donato Enoteca, btw, especially after reading about it at Iron Chevsky.

  8. [...] Bello Taverna e Pizzeria in the hipster Montrose district of Houston (the newest member of the Tony Vallone family of Italian [...]

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