Don't Mess with the Family
Alternating square slices of provolone and sottaceti, an Italian deli loaf that reminds me of mortadella, are dealt across a bed of romaine. Piles of green and black crushed olives, cucumbers, red-onion slivers, sliced mushrooms and marinated artichoke hearts surround the cheese and cold cuts on an old ivory dinner plate. I am sharing this "antipastu mafiusu" with Michael May, Houston's most famous sausage maker, at the lovably hokey Buon Appetito.
For lunch, I order the linguine pescatore, and May orders sausage (of course). Buon Appetito is a Sicilian restaurant (which explains the strange spellings). It is located in an old white house with blue awnings and shutters on the south side of Holcombe Boulevard, just west of the Medical Center. May explains that he picked this place for lunch because it is near the heart of Houston's old Italian neighborhood, not far from where he grew up.
"My grandmother bought her groceries at the old Antone's just down Main. I grew up on Antone's poor boys. I have always loved that olive salad." Fred's Italian Corner [2278 West Holcombe Boulevard, (713)665-7506], a tiny joint that serves simple satisfying pastas and baked dishes, is right across Holcombe. "We used to eat over there all the time." But May recommended the slow-paced atmosphere of Buon Appetito so we could hold a long conversation.
Buon Appetito is decorated with lots of potted plants, plaster statues, hand-painted plates and corny Italian artwork. The Italian cartoon characters on the oversize menu seem like they're from another era, like long-lost cousins to the Pink Panther. On the back of the menu is a history of the 17 invasions of Sicily and a commentary about what each ethnic group did to the island's food. Both the Romans and the Arabs are chided for leveling the vineyards of Sicily, while the Spanish are praised for bringing tomatoes and chocolate from the New World. The long passage ends with a Sicilian phrase that sums up the island's attitude about the invasions.
"What does this phrase mean?" I ask the waiter, pointing to the menu.
"Ask Enzo," he says.
"You mean you don't know?"
"No, I mean it's too nasty to repeat," he says.
It seems a little odd that the antipasto is served without bread, so I ask the waiter for some. We get garlic bread, and I pile some cheese and cold cuts on it while May explains how he got started in the sausage biz.
Seven years ago May worked as a chef at Tony's under Mark Cox. But he wanted to start his own business. "My grandfather Albert Candelari used to make a wonderful Italian sausage," May tells me. "He owned some liquor stores around Houston, and he used to give his sausage away to friends and customers. It became pretty famous. So my sister and I decided to try to manufacture Italian sausage using his recipe. We named the company Candelari Sausage after Grandpa."
Things started out rocky. "We found out that Carrabba's and a lot of other Italian restaurants made their own sausage." The Italians in Houston didn't care about Grandpa Candelari; they had their own grandpas. Luckily, Rice Epicurean picked up the sausage, but it was slow going, May says. He tried smoking his Italian sausage to suit Texans' tastes. He tried making it with turkey for the low-fat crowd. Then May heard about Bruce Aidells in Berkeley, California, and his new specialty sausages, like chicken-and-apple and whiskey-fennel. So May tried to make sausage like Bruce Aidells's.
I order a glass of Placido Chianti, and lean back in my chair to enjoy May's rambling tales of the sausage trail. The Chianti proves to be a good wine for long stories; it has a plumlike fruitiness and a body as soft as old corduroy. May's sausage and peppers arrives, and the waiter asks if he wants penne in tomato sauce on the side. He does. My seafood pasta fills a big oval platter; the linguine, coated lightly with a sauce of wine and fresh tomato, is heaped with calamari, shrimp and a chunk of salmon. The lemon slice and parsley sprig evoke fond memories of an era of more innocent garnishes.
May complains about the sausage. The texture is all wrong, too smooth; the meat is too finely ground. (They don't serve Candelari's sausage here.) Its mediocrity duly noted, he eats it with relish. I try a couple of bites, and I am quite impressed. The sausage has a fennel flavor, and the peppers have been cooked until they are silky and melt in your mouth. Sausage and peppers is a simple old-fashioned dish, but when you order this classic in some Italian restaurants, like Auntie Pasto's on Bellaire Boulevard, you are served a horrible combination of crunchy stir-fried peppers and soggy precooked sausage.
"So what's your favorite Italian restaurant?" I ask May. "Tutto Bene [4618 Feagan (713)864-0209] is a lot of fun. I like Star Pizza [2111 Norfolk, (713)523-0800; 140 South Heights Boulevard, (713)869-1241] too. But to tell you the truth, I don't really like to go out much for Italian food. I'd rather eat Grandma's or cook it myself."
I know what he means. When you grow up eating an ethnic cuisine, you develop a narrow conception of what it should taste like. Unless your grandmother comes from the same village in the Carpathian Mountains that mine did, don't try to serve me stuffed cabbage. And while you're at it, don't invite a Cajun over for gumbo, a Chinese friend over for stir-fry -- or Michael May over for sausage. "I'd rather go out for great Thai food," May says. "I love to go to Nit Noi [2426 Bolsover, (713)524-8114; 6395 Woodway Drive, (713)789-1711] for pad thai."
My linguine is a tad overcooked, and the wine-and-tomato sauce is bland. The well-done seafood is nothing to summon il postino for a long letter home about, either. May tries the dish and faults the spices. "The seasonings are too light," he says. I ask the waiter for some crushed red pepper and sprinkle the flakes liberally over the whole mess. It tastes much better. I should have done this from the beginning. I stuff my mouth, and May continues with his sausage saga.
"In 1994 a gourmet shop called Yapa's asked us to do a blind tasting of specialty sausages against Bruce Aidells and another California manufacturer. We won." The Candelari sausage company had been founded to make Italian sausage, but the competition in that niche was ferocious. Meanwhile, the specialty sausage business was taking off. So May's company started making varieties such as duck and fig, chicken and apple, wild mushroom and turkey, and other not-so-Italian sausages. And the gamble paid off. Once available only in specialty stores, Candelari Sausage now can be found at mainstream grocery stores in Houston and other Texas cities. These days he also makes German bratwurst and Cajun andouille.
Michael May doesn't go out to Italian restaurants very often because he's too used to the way his grandma makes lasagna. He starts an Italian sausage company only to discover that his creations don't sell -- for basically the same reason: Other Houston Italians are loyal to their own family recipes. So May's Italian sausage company ends up selling lots of every kind of sausage except Italian. Funny how things work out.
It's been a pleasant lunch. I understand why May recommended this restaurant. It's hard not to feel affectionate toward a place like Buon Appetito. It reminds me of outdated joints in other formerly vibrant Italian neighborhoods, like North Beach in San Francisco and Boston's North End. The Italian-Americans have moved to the suburbs, and the walls of these eateries are covered with autographed photos of celebrities who are now in old-age homes. But they make it possible for people to go back to the old neighborhood and for newcomers to understand what things used to be like.
Enzo Finazzo, the chef and owner of Buon Appetito, thanks us as we head for the door. Before I leave, I can't resist asking him to translate the Sicilian phrase on the menu. He stammers a little and finally he tells me what it means.
The waiter was right.
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