Panettone in a Pear Tree

Carlo Molinaro
Deron Neblett

Carlo Molinaro was born in Verona and grew up in Milano. He has been the chef and owner of La Trattoria restaurant (6504 Westheimer, 713-782-1324) for the last 19 years. We asked him about Italian holiday traditions, both in his hometown of Verona and here in the United States.

Q. What did you have for Christmas dinner in Italy?

A. We had turkey when I was a kid. Sometimes capon, but usually turkey.

Q. Stuffed?

A. Of course stuffed.

Q. What do they stuff turkeys with in Italy?

A. I could stand here all day and tell you things they stuff turkeys with in Italy: sausage, giblets, vegetables, hazelnuts…

Q. Okay, what do you stuff turkey with?

A. Giblets -- and sausage sometimes.

Q. What kind of sausage?

A. Mild Italian sausage.

Q. Who makes good Italian sausage in Houston?

A. No one.

Q. So what kind do you use?

A. We used to have a German man out in Katy who made our sausage. Then he disappeared. Then there was a guy at the Randalls on San Felipe who made great sausage for a while. I don't know what happened to him either. [Jim] Jamail on Kirby made sausage for us too. Now he's gone too.

Q. I heard he went to Central Market.

A. I heard that too.

Q. Do you ever go back to Verona?

A. Twice a year I go to Verona.

Q. At the Twelve Apostles restaurant in Verona they specialize in white truffles and porcinis this time of year. They do a white truffle torte with Gorgonzola on top. Do you do anything like that?

A. Yeah, I know it, it's thick like a cake. How do you know the Twelve Apostles restaurant? It was the best restaurant in Italy for quite a few years. But I am not doing white truffles in Houston. I tried it last year and it was a disaster. They sent them to the wrong address. This year I said forget it. Same problem with fresh porcinis here. I asked my vegetable guy for them, he said maybe four weeks. In New York, you can get them every day. But I do have a few dishes from the region.

Q. Like what?

A. Quail wrapped with prosciutto and stuffed with herbs served on polenta is a regional dish that's nice this time of year. Sometimes I do baccalà, that's salt cod, but it isn't on the menu.

Q. Why not?

A. Because nobody orders fish here unless it's deep-fried. They don't get it here in Houston.

Q. So the French have bûche de Noël, and the Germans have stollen. What do the Italians bake for Christmas?

A. We have panettone for the Christmas holidays. We don't bake it here, though. It's not so easy, you need a special oven. Nobody makes panettone in Houston.

Q. I had some last year at Da Marco.

A. Well, people will tell you they are making panettone, and maybe it's a version, but it's not like Milano. Spec's carries a brand of panettone that's actually very good. It's called Biffi. This is the name of a very famous cafe in Milano -- a cafe you need a tuxedo to go into in the middle of the afternoon -- but Biffi is famous for their panettone.

Q. What's so special about it? What makes a great panettone?

A. Everybody knows you put dried fruit in it; it's very simple. But it's how the panettone is baked that makes it great. It has to be light and airy. When you bite into a great one, it's so moist, it's still wet in the middle. But really, I like pandoro better than panettone anyway. It's the same thing, without the dried fruit. Pandoro means "golden bread." When it's made right, it's golden on the outside and as light as a feather…

Q. Are you making yourself homesick?

A. Yeah, I am.

Q. Do you go back to Italy for the holidays?

A. No, I go back to Italy in March for Vinitaly -- it's one of the largest wine exhibitions in the world.

Q. What's your restaurant's wine list like?

A. It's the largest selection of Italian wines in Texas -- 750 Italian wines. In the last 15 years Italian wine has made incredible progress. When people saw the prices [vintner] Angelo Gaja was getting, everybody got inspired to do better. The Super Tuscans are fabulous. The barolos are fabulous. Even the wines from Sicily are getting better. In a few more years we will be on a level with the French.

Q. What do you charge for Gaja's Barbaresco?

A. I am paying $255 a bottle for Gaja's 1997 San Lorenzo Barbaresco, and I sell it for $350 a bottle. The supply here is very limited. They sell it to you when they feel like it.

Q. Is that the best wine on your list?

A. No, the best wine on my list is Romano Dal Forno's Amarone.

Q. What's that going for?

A. The 1995 is $400. You don't even want to drink it with food, it's so good.

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