By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
But Zack Ateyea, its former owner, still operated several other restaurants. In fact, Ateyea never actually closed the Cafe Elegante location; he simply changed the name to Zin in 2002 as part of a makeover. He also acquired Papillon Bistro Français; he changed its name to Zin after the bistro was vandalized during the French boycott. Both of Ateyea's Zin restaurants continued to offer veal.
Pork-for-veal scams have been the subject of other newspaper investigations. A California restaurant was busted for exactly the same thing, according to a February 23, 2000, story in the San Jose Mercury News. Acting on a tip, Mercury Newsrestaurant critic Sheila Himmel visited the restaurant and ordered veal. She then sent a sample of the meat to a lab, where it tested positive for pork. The chef admitted to the fraud, and Bella Mia restaurant was fined $60,000 by the Santa Clara County district attorney, Himmel said. The chef was fired.
With this in mind, I started looking for a lab. One commercial food-testing lab in Texas declined because researchers were afraid of alienating their corporate restaurant clients. But I found a kindred spirit in Dr. Barrie Kitto at the Biochemistry Center at the University of Texas. During his undergraduate years at Brandeis University, Kitto accidentally uncovered a similar consumer fraud.
"We were testing haddock and cod. We got our samples from the New England Fisheries Board," Kitto remembers. One weekend the researchers ran out of samples. They sent somebody out to a supermarket to pick up some frozen packages of cod and haddock so they could keep working. But the haddock didn't behave the way it was supposed to. The packages labeled "haddock" turned out to be cod, which was a much cheaper fish. The researchers published a scientific paper on the scam in Sciencemagazine. A number of seafood wholesalers pleaded no contest to subsequent charges brought against them by the State of Massachusetts.
Kitto suggested we use test kits from Elisa Technologies, a scientific testing company in Florida that manufactures one of the most widely used tests for "cooked meat speciation." The tests detect species-specific, muscle-related glycoproteins. We decided to test a number of restaurants.
Bruce Ritter, the owner of Elisa Technologies and maker of the test kits, told me how to gather the samples and keep the chain of custody clear. Order veal in the restaurant, and then take some out in a doggie bag. Drop the meat in a plastic bag and then a second bag to avoid contamination. Mark the bag with a code, not the name of the restaurant, so the scientist who does the tests doesn't know where it came from. Have a witness with you in the restaurant and have that person watch you seal the meat in the bag. Then freeze the samples until you're ready to send them to the lab by Federal Express. And keep all the shipping records. I followed his instructions as I collected samples at Houston restaurants that serve scallopini-type veal over the course of a year.
Ritter also persuaded me to test the samples for the presence of both pork and beef tissue. (The tests make no distinction between beef and veal, since they come from the same species.) "You want to know if there's any pork in the veal," he said. "But you also want to know if there's any veal in the veal."
Out of the ten samples I sent to the University of Texas Biochemistry Center, eight tested completely normal. The restaurants with pure veal were Simposio Ristorante Italiano, Michelangelo's, Piatto Ristorante, Palazzo's Italian Cafe, Tony's, Grotto Ristorante on Westheimer, Cavatore Italian Restaurant and Riva's Italian Restaurant.
The two samples that tested positive for pork were the veal Milanese from Zin on Louisiana and the veal Marsala from Carrabba's Italian Grill on Kirby. The Carrabba's sample also tested positive for beef. The Zin sample tested negative for beef.
I suspected the veal at Zin would test positive for pork; after all, it was a tip about another restaurant with the same owner that prompted this investigation. But I was dumbfounded by the results on the Carrabba's sample. After all, I'd just been bragging about the success of these hometown boys a few weeks ago in these pages ("Italian Bubba," December 11). It seemed impossible that Houston's boy-next-door Johnny Carrabba could do anything like this. We decided on another round of testing.
In the first week of January, I sent five more samples to the University of Texas biochemistry labs. Included were the veal piccata from three Carrabba's Italian Grill locations: in Houston, the ones on Kirby and I-10, and in Austin, the one on I-35 (Carrabba's on I-10 and I-35 are part of the Carrabba's chain; the Carrabba's restaurant on Kirby is owned by Johnny Carrabba and his family). I also sent samples of veal Sorrentino from Damian's and sliced veal from Zin on Wilcrest.
This time, the veal from every Carrabba's location tested negative for pork. The sample from Damian's tested positive for both pork and beef. And the sample from the Zin on Wilcrest tested positive for pork and negative for beef.