Above: Tony served salt-encrusted Gulf of Mexico red snapper for 300+ persons last night.
In coming hours and days, much will be written about last night’s charity gala celebration of my friend and client Tony Vallone’s fiftieth anniversary as a restaurateur at his flagship restaurant in Houston, Tony’s.
It was back in 1965, he recounted when he took the mic, that he answered an ad for “a $500-a-month rental for a small wooden-framed restaurant where the Galleria now stands on Sage road.”
The landlord? Developer Gerald Hines.
Above: the snapper was served in a Barolo reduction, a Tony’s classic. In the arc of the menu’s narrative, this dish represented the 1970s and America’s “culinary awakening,” said Tony.
“In those days,” Tony told the 300+ crowd of rapt diners, “there were no refrigeration trucks. You couldn’t get fresh clams. You couldn’t get fresh mussels. Either you used canned or you used [gulf] oysters. That was all we had here. For calamari, I had to go to a bait camp to buy it because it wasn’t sold [in food shops].”
“There weren’t many Italian restaurants here in Houston in the 1960s. They were mostly American. And so you didn’t get pasta and seafood. When I started cooking these dishes, which Neapolitans had been doing for centuries, it was new here and it clicked.”
“This was the point of the original Tony’s. A very small and very Italian restaurant.”
Above: he served sausage-filled cannelloni as a nod to the 1960s and his beginnings as an Italian restaurateur, “a modern interpretation of a classic,” as he put it. To my palate, there were countless layers of meaning in this ineffably delicious dish. Even when Tony does passé, he does it with unrivaled panache.
Each of the dishes that Tony served last night was inspired by a decade of cooking at Tony’s.
The cannelloni (above), a homage to Italian cuisine in the United States circa 1965.
Salt-crusted Gulf of Mexico red snapper (top), an allusion to the 1970s and Americans’ “culinary awakening” as they embraced fresh seafood and locally sourced ingredients.
The “decade of America’s opulence,” the 1980s, was represented by heirloom veal served with Ossetra caviar (below).
Above: over my years working with Tony, he’s talked to me about how much fun it was to cook in Houston in the 1980s during the first oil boom when the sky was the limit for opulent eating. I loved how he served caviar and veal as a metaphor for those times.
The crème de la crème of Houston society and the energy-and-gas crowd was in attendance at last night’s event.
The cheapest seats cost $500 per person and table could be had for a cool $10k.
The dinner sold-out within two days of when it was first announced by the co-presenter Memorial Hermann, the largest not-for-profit hospital system in Houston (according to its Wiki entry).
More than 300 persons attended and there was a waiting list of 260+. The only crasher I spotted was Houston mayoral candidate Bill King.
Above: Tony’s is one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. But last night, with the entire house open for the event, it shimmered like the star it fêted.
It’s understandable that Houston’s elite would be so eager to attend the gathering and support its featured charity, Life Flight, Houston’s “critical care air medical transport service,” for which the event raised more than $400k.
After all, for five decades, Tony’s has been the backdrop of their finest moments, from marriage proposals to wedding receptions, from dinners-with-an-important-client and nights-out-with-the-boss to anniversaries and milestone birthdays.
Above: many of Tony’s team members have worked with him for more than 40 years. They are fiercely proud of their work together. Tony insisted that we snap pics with all the staff last night, front and back of the house.
For me, the nearly five years that I’ve worked with Tony have truly been one of the most fascinating and culinarily rewarding experiences of my professional life.
In so many ways, the contours of Tony’s career shape a gastronomic narrative that arches over all of us.
I am old enough to remember a time before words like trattoria, risotto, and al dente were commonly used in American culinary parlance; a time when we still said Parmesan in place of Parmigiano Reggiano; a time before Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello when there was only Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay.
For five decades now, Tony — himself, an ante litteram foodie — has been and continues to shine as a pioneer of the American real food movement.
Just think of how many people tasted arborio or radicchio for the first time in his restaurants over the years. Contemplate how many diners had their first kiss with prosciutto di San Daniele or extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily at his tables. Consider how many wine lovers first drew Nebbiolo, Corvina, or Sangiovese to their lips from stemware that had been polished in Tony’s kitchen (when I first moved to Texas in 2008, he was the only restaurateur who had Bartolo Mascarello and Giuseppe Quintarelli on his wine list, btw).
He is a bona fide national treasure and I am unabashedly proud to call him amico.
Thank you, Tony, and mazel tov for 50 years well spent as you have shared your passion for great food with us.
Our city, our nation, and my family are all the better for it.
As you put it so sagely and succinctly last night as you encouraged your guests to turn their attention to the rolled, stuffed housemade pasta on the plates before them, the first dish served on an unforgettable evening: cannelloni waits for no one…