Zinnante's Delicatessen is one of those unassuming neighborhood holes in the wall -- so unassuming that, though it's in my own neighborhood, I've driven, even walked, right past it for years. I only became aware of it when my husband happened to casually mention that there was this great Italian deli called Zinnante's where he'd eaten many sandwiches in his high school and college years. Where was it, I asked? Around the corner, he said.
"Now he tells me," I grumbled to myself.
Maybe it was my pique at having been kept in the dark all this time that colored my impressions, but when I marched him over to Zinnante's, the sandwich he reminisced about liking the most turned out to be my least favorite item. Not that the sandwich, named the Paisano, doesn't read great on the menu: described as ham, provolone, salami and chopped marinated olives on a French roll, it sounds like the Italian-influenced predecessor to the muffuletta. What I received, though, didn't live up to its billing. The soft, round, sesame seed-strewn roll enveloping the meat was lovely enough, but overall the sandwich was boring, with the interest-adding olives being barely a footnote. "Oh yeah," my negligent spouse remembered, "I always ordered it with extra olives."
"Now he tells me," I groused silently.
That faux muffuletta, though, proved to be a rarity on the Zinnante's menu. Most of the deli's offerings, I discovered, are more than worthy of fond memories. For example, the sandwich my husband ordered on my first visit turned out to be smashing. It was an oyster poor boy that, in its flimsy plastic deli basket lined with a single layer of white tissue paper, came out looking like a nondescript salad. A heap of shredded iceberg lettuce and thin tomato slices squiggled with what looked like ketchup made me wrinkle my nose. Not very appetizing, I thought. But what was concealed beneath that excelsior of salad stuff was a pile of hefty, golden oysters -- perfectly fried with a thin film of oil glistening in the nooks and crannies of their surfaces, but at the same time showing not one sign of being greasy -- in a French roll slathered with mayonnaise. And what had looked like plain old ketchup was instead a perfectly executed seafood cocktail sauce with tons of sharp horseradish. When it mixed with the mayonnaise, it turned an alluring and appetizing shade of baby pink.
What business, one might wonder, does an Italian deli have pulling off an oyster poor boy so artfully? As it happens, Zinnante's (owned now by Pete and Cezila Zinnante and opened by Pete's parents in 1972) has over the last decade become more than just the Italian outlet so admired by my husband. It has diversified by adding foods that Pete's friends, who tasted his great cooking at home, clamored to have added to the menu of his restaurant. Their first venture into Louisiana-style foods was fried turkey. The whole gamut of Cajun foods, plus barbecue and chili, followed, and before long, the Zinnantes had purchased a trailerized contraption they call "the rig" that's decked with a barbecue pit and crawfish pot, which they take to the Houston Rodeo cook-off and to various Cajun festivals.
Though Cajun food has become a staple of this Italian deli, the only other item I found I didn't care for came from that side of the menu: the seafood gumbo. It looked promising, being a rich brown with tiny dots of potent seasonings suspended throughout. And it was chock full of meat -- sausage, chicken, crawfish tails. But it lacked the bracing taste of file that marks the most successful gumbos. It never really came together. It seemed as though all the various ingredients were merely floating around in the same bowl, looking for an exit.
But a couple of Zinnante's classic Italian deli sandwiches made up for that disappointment. Other than the minor complaint that the Italian sausage link that's the centerpiece of the Zia Mia should have been split lengthwise before it was slapped on the grill, I loved this combo, especially the way the crisp-tender onions and bell peppers and puckery-skinned tomatoes were all jumbled together, seasoning each other and seasoned by the spices in the Italian sausage they shared the grill with. The Meat'a Ball'a (yes, the name is cutesy, but though I normally hate such menu humor, for some reason I liked this one), a classic meatball hero, showcased four beefy meatballs in a cushy, white French roll that suggested, by its slight crispiness, a light toasting. The meatballs were swimming -- nearly drowning, really -- in a spicy, almost creamy-textured marinara sauce. An archaeological blanket of melted, just-congealed mozzarella held everything together. Yum.
That same marinara sauce lends authority to Zinnante's home-style pasta dishes. Call me a reverse snob, but there's something truly refreshing about encountering a menu of pasta offerings where not one gram of goat cheese is present, nor a single sun-dried tomato. Picking your poison from this part of the menu is easy. Just decide whether you want to go fully carnivorous (pasta and meatballs or pasta and Italian sausage -- ground or in links), poultry (pasta and chicken), shellfish (pasta and shrimp) or vegetarian (pasta and sauce). All five selections are otherwise identical: an oval Styrofoam plate of linguini lavished with about a pint of that soulful marinara sauce and graced with the simple, yet inspired, inclusion of delicately sauteed fresh zucchini, onions and green bell peppers. These add crunch, contrasting color and just enough green to help aid the diner's confidence -- or delusion -- that she's well on her way toward meeting her daily quotient of fresh vegetables. A raft of garlicky, buttery French bread -- the sort that leaves your fingers coated with an exquisitely lickable glaze -- comes balanced on a crowded corner of the Styrofoam plate. On one visit, a dusting of Romano cheese was unfortunately added; it didn't enhance a selection of pasta and shrimp, adding too much salt and a strange, but unmistakably cheesy, odor to what was otherwise a terrifically unadorned plate of pasta loaded with fresh, springy crustaceans of just the right size.
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It took a while for me to get here, I thought as I dug into my pasta, but it was worth the wait. Zinnante's barbecue and their Cajun specialties might be great and their chili might win awards, but it's the charms of an old world-style Italian deli that make this a true find -- the charms of an Italian deli that also serves one heck of an oyster poor boy, that is.
I'd love to be able to say that now that I've found Zinnante's, I'll be a regular customer. Unfortunately, that won't be the case. I'm uprooting from my native city to explore the Pacific Northwest, and while I'll welcome the cool summers, I'll miss Houston, particularly the diversity of its food. This is my last column for the Press; I've enjoyed my short tenure here as food critic.
Zinnante's Delicatessen, 9806 Hillcroft, 723-7001.
pasta and shrimp, $6.24;
Meat'a Ball'a hero sandwich, $4.48.