By our best recollection, Houston is home to some 300 Italian restaurants. That’s not quite the level of the roughly, oh, 1,000 or so Tex-Mex, Mexican, Mex-Tex or whatever we’re calling those eateries now, but it’s getting there. And there are more pasta joints everyday: Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino, the Vallone’s new Ciao Bello and even new Stella Sola.
According to The American Pasta Report commissioned by the National Pasta Association, yes, there is such a trend. Reasons cited for pasta’s increasing popularity are its nutritional value, taste and convenience.
“Eighty-four percent of consumers consider pasta to be a healthy food and an important part of a well-balanced diet and 77 percent of the 1,003 Americans surveyed said they eat pasta at least once a week, while a third eat it three or more times a week," the report states. "What’s more, consumers who describe themselves as health conscious are more likely than others to eat pasta three or more times a week. In addition, 44 percent of the health conscious are eating more pasta today than they were five years ago.”
My, that’s a lot of dough.
Chef Giuliano Hazan has made a name for himself cooking, writing about and teaching classes about pasta. He was in town recently promoting his new cookbook, Giuliano Hazan’s 30-Minute Pasta, which contains 100 — you guessed it — 30-minute pasta recipes.
At a Ronald McDonald house fundraiser in the River Oaks manse of Mike and Becky Cemo, Hazan was teaching a group of about 25 folks how to create a divine Italian dinner that included a pasta dish with shrimp and porcini.
“It’s just a really healthy dish,” Hanzan said. “You don’t eat as much meat as you would otherwise, and it’s very economical. Nowadays that’s important.”
From anellini to zitoni, whatever your pasta favorite style, shape or flavor, it’s a good bet your can get a box of it for under two bucks. Even if you choose organic or high quality. Throw in a little sea salt, whip up some simple butter and garlic sauce and you’ve got a belly-filling comfort meal for pretty darn cheap.
Of course, you can spend a lot more than that. Houston is home to both mom-and-pop Italian eateries, as well as national chains — we’re talking about your Olive Garden — and several high-end spots such as Da Marco and the granddaddy of them all, Tony’s. And yes, Tony’s bills itself as contemporary European with a menu ranging from sushi to soufflés, but it is still the lasagnette and that osso buco ravioli that we go there for.
As for Mike Cemo — the host of the Hazan party — it’s Nino’s that wows him. “I love the food there,” Cemo said, patting his substantial girth. “The baked penne with three cheeses and meat sauce is just unbelievably good.”
Cemo has a theory why we have so many great Italian restaurants here. Of Sicilian descent himself, Cemo says the pasta proliferation came from second-generation Italians.
“That generation was looking for something to do,” he explained. “The Mandolas, the Carrabas. So they started restaurants.”
With 1.6 percent of the city’s two-plus million folks being of Italian lineage, there’s a built-in love of Italian food here. But even the steak and Tex-Mex eaters among us love to tuck into a plate of warm and aromatic pasta once in a while.