Food for Thought

The Frank Sinatra tie behind Houston's Italian food fetish: Fever dates back to a secret romance

The Frank Sinatra tie behind Houston's Italian food fetish: Fever dates back to a secret romance

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Frank Sinatra's foodie adventures included hitting Houston for great Italian food. AmericanMemoriabilia.com
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Why so many Italian restaurants in Texas’ biggest city? Matsuyuki/Flickr
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“The first few years I was in America, the food really confused me,” says Giancarlo Ferrara, the executive corporate chef of Arcodoro. Photo by Gracie Cavnar
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If you want to know the history of the popularity of Italian dining in Houston, you have to go back to 1965 when Tony Vallone opened a casual hole-in-the-wall Italian joint on Sage Road. Photo by Rick Staudt
News_Marene_Frank Sinatra
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News_Marene_Giancarlo Ferrara_Arcodoro_chief
News_Tony Vallone_Tony's_head shot

Despite its buzz worthiness, fusion isn’t always a good thing in food.

“The first few years I was in America, the food really confused me,” says Giancarlo Ferrara, the executive corporate chef of Arcodoro. “Why do they call this scampi? This isn’t scampi. And we don’t even eat meatballs with spaghetti in Italy.”

Ferrara knows of what he speaks. Born in Salerno, Italy, he trained at the Centro Professionale Alberghiero and worked at restaurants in Italy, France, Ireland and Florida before winding up in Houston in 2003. He’s one of several local chefs vying for the title of Maestro della Cucina (Italian for Master of the Kitchen) at the upcoming Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas culinary arts competition at Italian Expo 2011.

During half-hour demonstrations, each chef will prepare one dish to be tasted by the judges and the audience, who will all vote for a winner in three different categories: taste, presentation and overall excellence in the cooking demonstration. The votes will be tallied throughout the three-day event. On June 5 at 5:30 p.m., Houston’s Best Italian Chef will be announced.

The fact the city has an Italian Expo is testament to how much Houstonians love Italian food, fashion, wine and culture.

And when it comes to that food and wine, we have plenty of pasta places to choose from. B4-U-Eat.com lists 311 Italian restaurants in Houston. A surplus of steakhouses, yes. A tremendous Tex-Mex food culture, hell yes. Barbecue, duh. But why so many Italian restaurants in Texas’ biggest city?

Ferrara has one theory.

“The city is growing so fast,” he says. “In just nine years here I’ve seen the restaurant scene grow so much. And Houston is a real cosmopolitan city. The people here are very cultured and well traveled. They appreciate real Italian food, not Italian-American food like Olive Garden.”

But if you want to know the history of the popularity of Italian dining in Houston, you have to go back to 1965 when Tony Vallone opened a casual hole-in-the-wall Italian joint on Sage Road where Macy’s now stands.He once told me that that back then he had to buy his calamari from bait shops, but of course it was the forerunner of Tony’s, arguably Houston’s most famous eatery and one that renowned Esquire magazine food and wine critic John Mariani has called “one of the finest Italian restaurants in the country.

“He’ll do anything, pay anything, to get the finest ingredients,” Mariani says.

But wait. Let’s back up 16 years before Tony’s opened.

Houston’s Italian restaurant scene first made national headlines in 1949, as the famous Shamrock Hotel was opening. Frank Sinatra was one of the headliners at the glitterati event.

OK, bear with me for a moment here. The residents in the high rise where I live started a lending library in the laundry room. There’s a bookshelf there and we put the books we’ve read there and pick up others. The offerings are pretty eclectic. I recently snagged a new James Patterson and Kitty Kelley’s 1986 His Way; The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra.

On page 146 I found this tidbit about the torrid secret romance between Frank and Ava Gardner: “They went to dinner with Jimmy Van Heusen at Vincent’s Sorrento restaurant as guests of Mayor Oscar Holcombe. (So far, so accurate.) They were spotted by Edward Schisser, a photographer from the Houston Post (yes, the Post was around then), who approached them to get a picture. Schisser said that Frank threw down his napkin, reared back in is chair, and was ready to smash the man’s camera. Ava screamed and hid her face in the folds of her mink coat. The owner, TONY VALLONE (my bolded caps) rushed over, and the photographer left without his picture.

But the story appeared in the next day's paper and was picked up by the wire services, finally making public the secret romance of the last eighteen months.”

When the book came out in the 1980s, everyone thought it was our famous Tony Vallone, whose restaurant was already a classic by then. But wait, do the math.

“I would have been about six years old then,” Vallone laughs. “That was my dad, but he never told me about that story. His restaurant was known as Sorrento, based on the town where he was born and everybody called him Anthony.”

But the younger Vallone did serve Sinatra at his restaurant over the years, recalling that he was very nice and loved real home-style Italian pasta. Celebrities aside, why do we Houstonians love our Italian restaurants?

“Tex-Mex is number one here,” Vallone says. “But nationwide Italian is number one. Houstonians know their food; they love good food. And when Italian food is done right it is light and delicious, it’s like a garden in your mouth.”

As I hang up the phone with Vallone, having just come off another three-margarita-queso-and-enchilada-lunch with Dad, I am determined to book a lunch this week at Tony’s. I am in serious need of some fresh seafood and pasta and if I can just convince him to leave the fishing hat in the car, I think Dad will like Tony’s just fine.