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The late Charles McCabe, who wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than four decades, remembered in one piece how he had become enamored of Italian cooking. As McCabe wrote it, he was a young reporter in prohibition-era San Francisco. This was a time when that West Coast city, with a fraction of the population of today's Houston, supported five daily newspapers. The reporters were a rough sort, working-class men with high school educations who eked out a living on little more than nerve, news sense and a basic gift for writing a comprehensible sentence.
A freewheeling friend in McCabe's early days had discovered that housewives living in the Italian ghetto hills above the downtown commercial district would prepare a lunch with homemade red wine for paying guests. For the Italians, a lunch or dinner without wine was unthinkable. For McCabe and his colleagues, a chance to imbibe alcohol in the course of a working day was a deliciously illicit treat. The two groups found a working relationship.
In the course of these bibulous luncheons, the reporters discovered a wonderful cuisine. It was an Americanized version of the cooking of southern Italy, where most of the Italian immigrants in San Francisco had come from in the early years of the 20th century. In 1933, after the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, Italian cooking began to spread across the United States.
Today Italian cuisine is available in various forms, more or less authentic, from coast to coast. A trade group states that pizza, a Neapolitan dish not usually found in other regions of Italy, generates more dollars in the United States than computer hardware and software combined. Where is the Bill Gates of pizza? The market is divided among a plethora of chains and individual operators.
Obviously you no longer have to be even remotely Italian to open and operate an Italian restaurant.
This past week Houston has witnessed the launch of two new Italian eateries of note. In the building formerly occupied by Toopees, an operation that enjoyed great popularity among its Montrose neighborhood residents before a change in management (see Dish, "Dark Day at Toopees," October 14, 1999), there is now the divino Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar [1830 West Alabama, (713)807-1123].
The dinner-only divino opened on Monday, August 7. The new owner is businessman Jim McCray. His son, Patrick McCray, is co-chef with Michael Cimino. The modestly sized restaurant, with elegant wood paneling, will offer moderately priced Italian dishes, including fresh pasta made on the premises, according to the younger McCray. The wine list is of special interest. The divino concept is to offer a list of wines that will change according to availability. As Patrick McCray explains it, "We have five different wine distributors. We will rotate the wine list."
Emily Schwanecke, social events coordinator at divino, adds that "wines can be had by the bottle, the glass and by the taste." The markup will be on a sliding scale. The wine is arranged on a range of lighter-bodied reds to medium-bodied reds to heavier-bodied reds. There will be a similar scale for other categories, going on to sparkling wines, then premium red wines, premium white wines, premium sparkling wines and dessert wines. This may be the most intelligently organized wine list in Houston.
This past Thursday, August 10, the new Capriccio restaurant [7933 Westheimer, (713)278-0228] celebrated its opening. Again, this is an Italian restaurant not operated by Italians. The president of the establishment is Faisal Hussein, who operated the Capriccio at 414 West Gray, now occupied by La Estancia(see Robb Walsh's review, " Immigration Problems," August 10), an Argentine-styled grill.
The new Capriccio is a multicultural fusion operation. The food is ostensibly Italian, although such dishes as an appetizer of crab cakes, shaped in lozenge form, stacked vertically, drizzled with a blueberry syrup and blue cheese dressing, on a bed of fried spaghetti underlain with beet greens and lettuce, send the concept of fusion into a new quantum orbit. More traditional dishes such as the fried calamari are recognizable and satisfying. The wine list is both lengthy and rich in genuine Italian varietals, suggesting a serious attempt at the national cuisine.
Fusion is not reserved exclusively for the food at Capriccio. The restaurant has a large stage on which salsa bands will perform on weekends. The restaurant's location, just west of Stoney Brook, and not far from Elvia's[2727 Fondren, (713)266-9631], is in prime salsateca territory. The concept, it seems, is to mix Italian cuisine with those irresistibly danceable rhythms.
Charles McCabe would have been astounded.