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Everybody loves cheese," Antonio Rosa, the owner of Antonio's Flying Pizza on Hillcroft, told me as I leaned over the counter to watch him make pizzas. The pizza he was cutting was piled high with meat and dripping with melted mozzarella. "But all that cheese doesn't let the crust breathe. It's like covering the dough in plastic."
"So how can I get a pizza with a crispy crust?" I asked him.
"Ask for light cheese," he said, launching another crust into the air with a trademark spin.
Houston, TX 77057
Meatball sandwich: $6.50
Ham, ricotta, mozzarella calzone: $8.95
Medium cheese pizza: $10.25
Spaghetti with meatballs: $11.95
Tomato salad: $4.95
With its red-checkered tablecloths, pretzel-backed chairs and terrazzo floors, Antonio's Flying Pizza looks exactly like the Italian-American restaurants of the Greater New York area. Which makes sense, since Sicilian-born Antonio Rosa had a pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut, and another one in Morristown, New Jersey, before he moved to Houston and opened Antonio's Flying Pizza in 1971. It doesn't just look like an East Coast Italian-American restaurant and pizzeria it is an East Coast Italian-American restaurant and pizzeria.
I ordered "light cheese" and garlic on a medium pizza, and added "extra crispy" to the request. The crust on the pizza I was served was wonderfully light and crunchy, but unfortunately the dough was underproofed, which is to say, it didn't have a lot of yeasty air bubbles, so the texture was as boring as white bread. And it was still one of the best pizzas I've had in town, which doesn't say much for Houston pizzas.
Houstonians are used to eating "kitchen sink" pizzas with piles of meat and lots of cheese. A pizza with light cheese takes some getting used to. It isn't a full meal it's a crispy flatbread with a light topping on it. But that was okay with me, because I also ordered a tomato salad and a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. My tablemate got penne with mushroom sauce.
The red sauce was nicely balanced and not too sweet. The mushrooms were canned, and the meatballs needed more garlic and onion. I looked around the restaurant and considered the audience. There were a lot of families with small kids eating spaghetti and meatballs. I bet they liked the bland meatballs just fine.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and by about 2:30, the family crowd began to thin out. There was quiet for a while, but then a group of older Italian-American guys took a table near our booth.
"He's 60, and he's the kid at the table," a ninetysomething white-haired guy said loudly as they ordered their food.
"I used to come here all the time. But then we moved way out to Memorial and Dairy Ashford, and it wasn't convenient anymore," the 60-year-old kid told the waiter. "But I missed the place, so I started coming back." Now they meet there every Saturday.
Antonio came out from behind the counter and stood beside the table, joining the conversation. The ninetysomething white-haired guy reminisced about living in Brooklyn back in the days when everybody in the neighborhood spoke Italian.
Antonio's Flying Pizza is a popular place. On a Tuesday night at seven, there weren't any tables available and people were milling around waiting to sit down. I'd called my to-go order in a half an hour ago, but it still wasn't ready. Antonio and another pizza maker were in a dough-spinning frenzy.
I ordered a meatball panini, a veal parmigiana panini, a Sicilian pizza and a ham-and-cheese calzone. What Antonio's menu calls "paninis" aren't the pressed Italian sandwiches that usually go by that name. Antonio's sandwiches are the ones that are called hoagies in Philadelphia, grinders in Connecticut, subs on Long Island and heros elsewhere sub sandwich rolls sliced longwise and filled with your choice of meatballs and red sauce, sausage and peppers, veal, chicken, eggplant parmigiana or other fillings often topped with cheese and usually baked in the oven.
When I got home, I tried to cut the sandwiches and calzone into halves. The eggplant parmigiana came out of the roll when I tried to cut it. It ended up as a pile of bread, eggplant and cheese on a plate. We ended up eating it with a knife and fork. It was tasty, but not much of a sandwich.
Antonio's meatball sandwich was excellent. The bread was crusty and the meatballs and mozzarella filling formed a deliciously slippery mess. Sloppy joes are neat compared to meatball sandwiches. You have to carefully manage the rate at which the balls of meat pop out of the cheese and red sauce. If you are careful, each meatball will end up in your mouth, or at least on your plate. But if you get careless, the gooey bottom seam of the sandwich will give way and you will end up with a meatball in your lap, or worse, on the floor. This one fared pretty well, though we ate the last meatball by itself and discarded the leftover bread.
The Sicilian pizza was thick and crispy with an olive oil-basted crust. It came with tomato sauce and cheese only. You'd expect the inch-high crust to be dense and filling, but in fact, the dough was so light, it tasted like air. At home, my daughter tried putting onions and peppers on top to give it some more flavor.
We had no such problems with the calzone. Antonio's offers a wide variety of calzone stuffings, including meatball, sausage, veal, chicken parmigiana, mushroom and onion, and spinach. We went for the one described as "ham, ricotta and mozzarella." The folded-over pizza crust was baked in the pizza oven until it was golden brown. When we cut it open, it oozed cheese all over the place, but the crust stayed crunchy. It came with a container of red sauce for dipping. And it was the first thing to disappear.
The tomato salad at Antonio's Flying Pizza consists of some very ordinary sliced tomatoes topped with a sprinkling of oregano, vinaigrette and a few olives. Compared to the salads of heirloom tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and the creamy mozzarella called burrata currently being served at Reef and other restaurants around town, this kind of tomato salad looks pathetic. Antonio's mushroom sauce doesn't compare very well to the wild mushroom sauce Da Marco serves with their braised duck ravioli either.
Marco Wiles is turning out stunning Italian food at Da Marco. I love his creamy eggplant soup with a bruschetta crouton floating on top, and his brilliant pasta dishes. But that doesn't mean I won't eat a light cheese and garlic pizza at Antonio's on a Saturday afternoon.
The relationship between old-fashioned Italian-American food and cutting-edge Italian is just like the relationship between Tex-Mex and upscale Mexican food. Antonio's Flying Pizza is to Da Marco as Molina's is to Hugo's. You don't have to pick one over the other, any more than you have to stop eating hamburgers because you love steak.
Granted, Da Marco makes a better tomato salad than Antonio's. But there are some simple pleasures available at Antonio's, like the meatball sandwich or the calzone, that Da Marco doesn't offer. And those of us who grew up eating cheese slices and crunchy meatball sandwiches have nostalgic cravings that braised duck ravioli and artichokes with lemons can never satisfy.
I'm not an Italian-American, but I spent much of my childhood on the East Coast, and this food will always have a place in my heart. I want to bring my children to Antonio's Flying Pizza so they can learn about meatball sandwiches and spaghetti all covered with cheese. And someday, I hope to end up here on Saturday afternoons remembering the good old days.