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It was on my third visit, when I came with Paul and his wife for dinner, that things began to explain themselves. Houston Press food writer Paul Galvani grew up Italian in London, and he is a pasta perfectionist. Nothing sold in supermarkets is good enough for him. He buys pasta from a Houston factory that sells only to wholesale suppliers and restaurants, a place called Milano's Pasta. Paul buys the stuff a hundred pounds at a time and keeps it in the freezer. That's why I wanted him to sample the pasta at Fabio's.
The fettuccine alla Fabio -- fresh pasta with artichokes, mushrooms, green peas, olive oil and garlic, topped with grilled chicken -- was boring, but the pasta itself, Paul agreed, was fabulous. The daily special, fresh Gulf red snapper topped with roasted eggplant, proved to be an inspired combination. The simple slice of eggplant became a slick-textured and complex-flavored sauce as you chewed it with the fish. But a pile of angel-hair pasta tossed with pomodori looked out of place beside it. I always thought putting pasta on every plate was an Italian-American thing. But the pasta beside the fish didn't look nearly as odd as the pasta under the osso buco.
"Osso buco is traditionally served with risotto," Paul said in puzzlement. The veal shank was perfectly cooked; it fell apart at the touch of a fork. And the angel-hair pasta underneath had been drenched in the braising sauce. It was a luscious, if untraditional, way to eat osso buco. But the presentation had Paul convinced that Fabio wasn't Italian. That and the fact that Paul heard him yakking on the phone in Spanish.
2129 W. Alabama St.
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Antipasto giardiniera: $7.95
Fettuccine alla Fabio: $12
Red snapper melanzane: market price
Linguine pescatore (lunch): $13.95
Osso buco milanesa (lunch): $16.50
As far as the cooking went, we were all in agreement: Pepe is a master. And as Paul confirmed, the quality of the pasta at Fabio's is exceptional. It's the concept of the place that's confusing. The dishes are all old standards, but they are not regional and not authentic. On the other hand, there are no meatballs, hardly any sausage and no cannelloni, so the menu isn't Italian- American either. It's a hodgepodge of Italian food clichés all right, but it's a different hodgepodge from the one we usually see in the United States.
After the plates were cleared away, we took our coffees over to the bar and sat down while Fabio finished his phone conversation. When he hung up, he came over to talk to us.
"Da dove sei?" Paul asked, which means "Where are you from?" in Italian.
"Palermo," said Fabio.
"Come mai parla spagnolo così bene?" Paul quizzed him. "How is it you speak Spanish so well?"
"My family is from Palermo, but they moved to Colombia when I was young," explained Fabio in halting Italian. Spanish is his first language.
Fabio is Italian -- Italian-South American, to be precise. And his menu is more a reflection of his Italian-South American upbringing than of his Sicilian birthplace. Just like Italian-Americans, Italian-South Americans have their own preferences and prejudices when it comes to Italian food. They also have a similar disregard for the rules that say you shouldn't put cheese on fish, you should always serve risotto with osso buco, and you shouldn't mix regions on the same menu.
Don't go to Fabio's looking for cutting-edge Northern Italian cuisine, or for regionally authentic Italian food. Don't go looking for spaghetti and meatballs either. Go for the pasta. Sure, the atmosphere and the Alfredo sauce are old clichés. But so is "Mom's apple pie," and that never kept you from eating it.
Where does he buy this fabulous pasta, Paul wanted to know. As it turns out, Fabio is the guy who started Milano's Pasta. He also had an interest in Houston's other top pasta maker, Giannotti Pasta Factory. Be he Italian, or Italian-Colombian, Fabio is the grandfather of the Houston pasta industry.
"No wonder the pasta is so good," said Paul in admiration.
We decided to call the bet a tie.