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Tony Vallone's Regional Italian Cuisine Dinner Series

Sicilian homestyle cooking at Ciao Bello.

Edible Events

'You don't even need a knife," the woman seated next to me, the wife of a prominent local judge, advised. I'd just picked up my knife and fork, ready to take a bite of a delicious-looking piece of gaddina a 'muddicata, Sicilian for our second course of breaded baked chicken. Taking her advice, I put down my knife and used my fork to cut through the drumstick. Sure enough, the chicken easily gave way; it was moist, fall-off-the-bone tender, the flavor slightly spiced and savory, tasting homemade and so, so good.

This was just one of the highlights at the recent kickoff dinner for Tony Vallone's new Regional Italian Cuisine Dinner Series. Entitled Un Giardino in Bocca, or A Garden of Flavors, this first dinner featured the foods from Vallone's home in Sicily.

(Clockwise) 2011 Azienda Agricola COS, Frappato, Sicilian IGT; breaded baked chicken; escarole, cannellini beans, pine nuts and golden raisins.
Mai Pham
(Clockwise) 2011 Azienda Agricola COS, Frappato, Sicilian IGT; breaded baked chicken; escarole, cannellini beans, pine nuts and golden raisins.
Deep-dish at Lou Malnati's
Joanna O'Leary
Deep-dish at Lou Malnati's
The mystery of the pretzel bacon cheeseburger: dry beef, but greasy at the same time.
Christina Uticone
The mystery of the pretzel bacon cheeseburger: dry beef, but greasy at the same time.

On paper it was billed as four courses and five wines, but in typical Vallone style, you get so much more than what's on paper when attending one of his dinners. He hasn't been in the business for more than 40 years without learning a thing or two about entertaining, and events like these are as much a celebration of food as they are about dining.

The joyous spirit of the occasion permeated the room, which buzzed with positive energy as guests were treated to antipasti of panelle, arancini and caponata: crispy chickpea, prosciutto and salami fritters; stuffed saffron rice balls; and fantastic eggplant caponata. A salad of fresh bufala mozzarella with grape tomatoes, Cerignola olives and fava beans was also served, and wine glasses were generously filled with a beautifully pink-colored, translucent 2012 Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Sicilian Rosé wine, barely hinting at the bounty to come.

And what a bounty it was. Our primo, or first course, a chiagne a 'caserieccia, or lasagna with hand-formed meatballs and peas, was almost my undoing. It was heartbreakingly delicious, and I tried to slow down my eating so it wouldn't disappear too quickly, the pillowy, cheesy yet surprisingly light-tasting dish so luscious that I was swooning in enjoyment. "We have a saying in Vietnamese, which is that it touches your lips and then melts down your throat," I said. My entire table agreed, their scraped-empty plates and approving nods of satisfaction a testament to the dish's utter perfection.

A terzo, or third course, an al dente rigatoni with meat and sausage gravy, seemed simple enough until a server came around with a huge platter piled high with short ribs and whole Italian sausages — the meats used to make the gravy — asking if we'd like a few pieces. I thought it might be a fluke of timing that the meat came after the pasta, but found out that it's a normal Italian practice to serve the meat separately.

The whole room let out a collective gasp when the servers wheeled out what could only be described as a giant ice-cream cake decorated with strawberries, big enough to feed a wedding of 200 and bearing bright sparklers that lit up the room like fireworks. It was incredible in size, and I'm told it took a huge team effort to put together; boy, did it wow. And yet it was just one of the several dolci, or desserts, that we received that night. Vallone's signature housemade cannoli, trays full of different types of Sicilian cookies, and delicate pineapple half-moons filled with lemon ice were also passed around to guests before the night came to an end.

The menu for the evening, written by Vallone in Sicilian, Italian and English, was composed of what he called "simple peasant food." They were the Sicilian dishes he'd grown up eating at home, dishes that you wouldn't go to a restaurant for. But as served at Ciao Bello and created by chef Bobby Matos and his team using Vallone's family recipes, was simply extraordinary.
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On the Road

Chicago's Deep-Dish Pizza
Defining deep-dish at Lou Malnati's.

Joanna O'Leary

In the days leading up to my trip to Chicago, I spent a good amount of time fantasizing about deep-dish pizza and investigating Houston's own alleged offerings, including the frozen Gino's East version available at Central Market and H-E-B.

Now that I'm back home from vacation, I'm even more motivated to continue my exploration of Chicago-style deep-dish in Houston, if only because of my terrific experience at Lou Malnati's. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a public awareness campaign about the merits of deep-dish pizza in order to generate enough buzz to motivate some intrepid restaurateur and angel investors to start a Chi-town-comes-to-H-town pizza emporium.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to Lou Malnati's. I first tried Lou Malnati's about 18 years ago when I went to Chicago for a family wedding. I don't remember many details of this experience, though I do recall liking the pizza so much that I overate until I almost felt ill. On a subsequent trip to Chicago to visit my friends and sisters, I also visited Giordano's, which I also found very satisfying. These forays into the world of deep-dish pizza were, however, too far apart in time for me to make reasonable comparisons between the merits of these famous chains and their wares.

Deciding where to get deep-dish on this most recent trip (and, yes, there would, for better or worse, be only one place because there are far too many other foodstuffs I needed to sample) was at first a daunting task. My blurred memories of my own experiences weren't particularly helpful, and interweb opinions regarding the "best" or "most authentic" deep-dish pizza in Chicago were strongly divided. In the end, I was swayed by you, dear readers, particularly by your comments on Eating...Our Words detailing a love for Lou Malnati's so strong it compelled you to order their pizzas flown frozen to your homes here in Houston.

Also, two of their locations were extremely close to my sister's apartment! #mylaziness­knowsnobounds.

I am happy to report that in this case, proximity also happened to correlate with high quality. After my visit, and after learning a bit more about the restaurant's history, I know I made a good choice.

Deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's, or any of the more popular pizza joints in Chicago, can easily (and pleasurably) be a three-hour affair. Malnati's does not take reservations, and wait times even on weekdays average 45 minutes to an hour (more during major events, like the city's recent celebrations for the Blackhawks' victory). Deep-dish pizza requires around 35 minutes of oven time, and since every pie is made to order, that period starts only after you make your pizza selections. (Malnati's does fortunately offer a system whereby you can place your order while standing in line to expedite your dining ­experience.)

Once you're seated, it's tempting and certainly reasonable to focus immediately on the main event (pizza), but if you have some time to spare (as we did), I heartily suggest first prepping with drinks and light appetizers of the botanical variety so as to properly hydrate yourself for the ensuing cheese-meat-butter bomb that is Chicago-style deep-dish. We began with a round of beer, pinot grigio, cherry Cokes (note: regular Coke infused with real cherry syrup) plus two monstrous salads. The simple house salad was fresh and crisp but nothing to write home about; the Malnati Salad, however, almost distracted me from the pizza. The small mountain of romaine lettuce, crumbled blue cheese, olives and diced tomatoes dressed with a sweet, peppery vinaigrette was the perfect symphony of summer textures and farmhouse flavors. A salad, as they say, that eats like a meal.

Good thing, however, it's nearly humanly impossible to stuff yourself on vegetables. Even after consuming two plates full of salad, I was still hungry, perhaps even more so, for some deep-dish. In the spirit of moderate portions and maximum variety, we ordered an individual cheese, an indi­vidual sausage and a small "Lou's" (spinach, mushrooms and three types of cheese). Three different pies but with one very important thing in common: a butter crust. This, my friends, is what makes or breaks true Chicago-style deep-dish.

In our sideshow of Malnati's pizza, you'll observe that the depth of their pizzas is less than you might expect. You might even protest, "That pizza looks a lot like what they serve at [insert Houston pizza establishment here]." But a picture is worth a thousand words, or rather it sometimes requires at least a hundred words to describe its subject accurately. It's true that there is deeper-dish pizza in Chicago than that offered at Lou Malnati's, pizzas, as I once stated on Eating...Our Words, into which you can easily bury your whole thumb. That particular trait, however, does not define deep-dish and is therefore also why even if, for example, Star Pizza doubled the thickness of its thickest pizza crust, it would still not produce an authentic Chicago-style pie.

Along with dense layers of cheese, toppings and chopped tomatoes (usually in that order), a butter crust is the key to true Windy City deep-dish. And I don't just mean that the pan is greased with butter instead of oil in order to render that delicious brown savory sheen on the bottom and sides of the pizza. Rather, the crust itself is made with butter, a lot of butter, small bits of which work their way into every nook and cranny of the dough in such a way that what emerges resembles a flaky pastry more than a crumbly bread. A bite of the crust is like a bite of a dense croissant, and when this taste experience merges with the garden sweetness of the tomatoes and the salty cream of the cheese, you have a pizza that demonstrates that Italian-Americans, as well as the Japanese, also have a handle on that elusive concept known as umami.

And such a fresh, fragrant mixture of protein, dairy and vegetables means that even after three slices, I was satiated but not ghastly full. At Lou Malnati's, I had no intention of leaving room for dessert, which I envisioned would be my penultimate large piece of pizza (the final small piece my digestif). My revelation as the empty pans were cleared away that I could eat more not only later justified my consumption of half a "cookie pizza" (a warm pan-baked chocolate chip cookie overwhelmed with large scoops of vanilla ice cream) but also, and more important, made me leave the restaurant joyful yet still a bit mournful.

I ate (past tense) deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's. However, I love (present tense) Chicago-style deep-dish pizza [end stop]. This enduring infatuation means that even pies as fantastic as what I had at Malnati's ultimately leave me hungry for so much more. Thus my quest for Chicago-style deep-dish will continue long after I've left the Windy City. Next stop: Chicago's Italian Beef.
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Fast Times

Wendy's Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger
Not quote pretzel-y, bacon-y.

Christina Uticone

I am really starting to become a sucker for promotional burgers. Lately, every time I go through the drive-through with Good Salad Intentions, I end up with whatever special burger promotion is going on.

This time it was Wendy's — because who can resist a bacon cheddar burger, especially when it comes on a pretzel bun?

Wendy's calls the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger "a delicious new twist on our classic hot-n-juicy cheeseburger with a sweet & smoky honey mustard sauce, melted cheddar cheese and applewood smoked bacon all on a warm, soft pretzel bun."

Let's explore the accuracy of that ­statement.

Basing a "new" burger entirely on simply changing the bun is a tricky strategy, because that bun had better be pretty epic. I certainly liked the look of my Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger — a dark, caramelized bun that housed a beef patty, melted cheddar cheese, dark and leafy lettuce (green and purple!), and visual evidence of the aforementioned "sweet & smoky honey mustard sauce."

Unfortunately, the visuals do not translate into a winning cheeseburger. You can see the honey mustard sauce, but it gets lost in the more-than-a-little-greasy cheese. And you know what else doesn't work? A dry hamburger patty paired with cheese grease. The bottom of the to-go container was covered in a slick of grease that, as near as I could tell, was coming from the layer of cheese between the burger patty and the bun — the burger was so dry, how could the grease possibly be coming from the meat? It was a strange, and unpleasant, combination of textures.

As for the bacon, I finally found some around the fifth or sixth bite, but again, we're talking about an ingredient that largely gets lost in the grease pit. Finally, the star of the show, the "soft pretzel bun." "Soft" is not a word I would use to describe the bun; in fact, it was a lot closer to an actual pretzel than to a pretzel roll — dry, chalky, almost dusty when tasted on its own. I think you have to skip this one, guys — I expect a lot more for my 680 fast-food calories than grease and cheese.
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Bar Beat

D&T Drive Inn's Grand Opening
An old dog with new tricks.

Minh T. Truong

The grand opening of the "new" D&T Drive Inn has been a year and a half in the making. Down House co-owners Chris Cusack and Joey Treadway acquired the place in early 2012 and have been working on transforming the once divey icehouse on Enid and Calvacade into a slicker version of itself.

D&T is still laid-back with a neighborhood vibe, but with shiny new add-ons such as a beautiful new bar and communal table made from an oak tree that had to be taken down during renovations, and a bar with 50 craft beers on tap. A club associated with Down House wouldn't be complete without food offerings, and along with a steak and fried-chicken night, D&T offers a small menu of sandwiches and meats and cheeses.

A good crowd braved the heat to attend the June 29 grand opening. The small front bar area was bustling, as was the large back patio. Patrons were treated to samples from the menu — po-boys, smoked pimento cheese made with sharp Cabot cheddar, housemade giardiniera pickles, potato salad and pickled eggs. As a non-fan of potato salad, I found this one to be extraordinary and kept wanting more. It wasn't your usual creamy variety but more tangy, kicked up with mustard seed and parsley. The pickled eggs were shrimp-boiled, adding a layer of spice. It was simple but unique.

I can easily see that the area will embrace the makeover. For all its modern touches, D&T didn't want to completely change what had been. It wanted to preserve the history of the neighborhood joint and bring out the full potential of the space. Don't worry: You can still get your Lone Star, Miller Lite and Bud Light, in a can, on ice — it still is an icehouse, after all.
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Heights location of D'Amico's shutters but looks to reopen in Katy.

Molly Dunn

Unfortunately, a few popular restaurants closed their doors last week, but fortunately, they have announced plans to reopen in different locations throughout Houston. Let's start with the beloved Italian eatery D'Amico's.

Eater Houston reports that the Heights location of D'Amico's Italian Market Cafe closed after being in business for the past two years. You can still eat at D'Amico's in Rice Village, though. A statement from the restaurant explains that the owners have enjoyed being in the Heights but decided to move the restaurant to a more suitable location. D'Amico's is opening in Katy in the early fall as well as in Sugar Land, The Woodlands, Memorial and a few more areas later.

On its Web site, The Boiling Crab announced that its Houston location had closed July 1. However, the seafood restaurant is looking for a new place to open in the Houston area.

Gastronaut reported that Taqueria La Macro is not closing for good. The northside taqueria shut its doors only temporarily July 2 to expand; the restaurant reopened on July 8 and is now three times its former size.

As reported last week, The Palm was scheduled to reopen on July 8. The restaurant underwent renovations and has expanded by 2,500 square feet, for a new total of 9,000 square feet. The Houston Chronicle notes that The Palm has undergone changes in the last five months costing $5 million.

In coming-soon news, Yucatan Taco Stand will take the place of the former Stella Sola on Studewood in October or early November. CultureMap Houston says the new location of the taco stand will be the third in Texas, with sites currently in The Woodlands and Fort Worth; maybe this street taco restaurant can overcome the curse on the Heights location.

Killen's Barbecue pop-ups have made many patrons eager for the restaurant to open officially. Chef Ronnie Killen told the Chronicle that he hopes to start the construction process in the next week and to open formally in a couple of months. Due to real-estate delays, Killen's Barbecue has not been able to progress as quickly as expected; however. things are starting to shape up for the restaurant. If you don't want to wait a couple of months to feast on Killen's barbecue, you can grab some of his tasty brisket on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 11 a.m. Get there early because once it runs out, there's no more.

On June 28, Good Dog Hot Dogs announced on Twitter that the food truck will be opening its own brick-and-mortar location. Their physical location will be at 903 Studewood where Big Mamou used to be. The two owners told Eater that they enjoy the Heights — in fact, they called it their hood. The new restaurant should open sometime in September and will have a larger menu with more hot dog specials, side dishes, and Texas craft beer and wine options.

Roots Bistro shut its doors a few weeks ago, but Gastronaut reports that Radical Eats will be opening its restaurant featuring a menu with non-vegan and vegan items in that location.

Just in time for the summer heat, Houston will have its very own tiki bar serving up exotic cocktails. After a pop-up inside Grand Prize Bar, the owners unveiled their new concept, Lei Low, which will serve up "too-pretty-to-drink cocktails," as reported by CultureMap Houston. Lei Low will open on North Main in about four months.

Grotto Italian Ristorante opened in Galveston on June 26, making this the third location in the Houston area. Houston Business Journal reports that the new location is inside the city's San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center.

In a sad closing, Perry's Italian Grille on Pineloch held a farewell toast on June 29. Many patrons in the Clear Lake area didn't want to see the popular restaurant go.

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