Fabio Molano is talking on the phone. It's a pretty animated conversation, and he's speaking Spanish. Paul Galvani and I are sitting at the little bar finishing our coffees. Paul shoots me a knowing glance: He had bet me that Fabio wasn't Italian, and judging by the way he speaks Spanish, it looks like Paul is going to win.
I should have guessed, I think, as I look around Fabio's restaurant. The place is trying too hard to look Italian. The prints of old Italian paintings on the walls and the endless loop of the Three Tenors were bad enough. But then, last month, Fabio had an artist fill an entire wall with a bad copy of the Adam and God part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Adam looks a little more buff in this version -- he has a very pronounced six-pack. Unfortunately, if you get seated at the table underneath him, his penis ends up dangerously close to your ear.
The first time I walked in the door of Fabio's, I wanted to turn around and get the hell out. With its white linen tablecloths and mahogany dining chairs, it was way too formal for a Monday lunch. I had intended to take my kids to Café Compliqé for a pizza, but it was closed. So we pulled into this weird Italian restaurant at the beginning of Westheimer and took our chances. We were wearing jeans and shorts -- not really appropriate for this setting -- but when you're the only customers, you set your own fashion standards. And besides, Fabio had his hand on my back, so I couldn't make a run for it.
We sat down and looked at the menu. To my horror, the lunch specials were all $10 to $15. I mentally added up the money in my wallet and came up with a figure short of 40 bucks. And since that was barely enough for three entrées and a tip, I figured either we had to leave or somebody wasn't going to eat. I was waiting for Fabio to turn his back so we could bolt.
Then Pepe Velez, the head chef, arrived at the table. The chef waits tables when business is slow. And so far, business is always slow at Fabio's. Maybe Pepe sensed my panic, because he immediately began to tell me about some lunch specials that weren't on the menu. He had a grilled chicken over pasta Alfredo for $8.50 and a homemade ravioli for the same price. I was relieved. He also graciously offered to split the pasta dishes. So we ordered a cold antipasto plate and the two pastas split three ways. But Pepe didn't quite understand me. Instead, he served us the antipasto and just one pasta -- the one with chicken -- split three ways.
The generous antipasto plate featured succulent roasted red pepper rectangles garnished with anchovies, tomato slices and fresh mozzarella drizzled with pesto, and sweet white melon slices wrapped with velvety prosciutto. When we finished mopping those up, we were served a salad and a bottomless basket of garlic bread.
Three plates of pasta were topped with julienned slices of thin chicken cutlet. A boneless, skinless chicken breast had been flattened and grilled so that the meat took on a nice charred flavor. The Alfredo sauce was passable, but the fettuccine was exceptional. It was extremely fresh pasta cooked perfectly al dente. As I would come to find out, Fabio is quite an authority on pasta.
Pepe had really done us a favor by stretching this entrée three ways. By now, I was so embarrassed at how cheaply we had ordered, I encouraged the girls to split a dessert. It was the first time they had ever tasted the marsala-flavored custard sauce called zabaglione. This one was thick and sweet and served over fresh strawberries -- they loved it. I had an espresso. Somehow our rather extravagant lunch for three ended up costing little more than $20.
It was a nice meal, but strangely un-Italian. Obviously Fabio was not from the mainstream of Italian culture. On the way out the door, I asked him if he was Italian. He said he was.
"What part of Italy?" I asked.
"Sicily," he said.
The second time I visited Fabio's was also for lunch. And I had another excellent plate of pasta: angel hair tossed with pomodori and topped with lump crabmeat. My guest had the homemade ravioli, which were stuffed with ricotta and served in a mushroom sauce. The pasta had that toothsome freshly made noodle texture; I would swear it had been made a few seconds ago. This time I wore a dress shirt and brought ample cash, so the formality and the prices didn't bother me. But there was still something goofy about the place, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
For one thing, Fabio offered to sprinkle my crabmeat with cheese. Italians don't put cheese on seafood, and they cringe when Americans do it. And then there was the Sicilian thing. Like most Italians, Sicilians are more loyal to their region than to the country. Where were the Sicilian dishes? Where were the Sicilian wines? And why the Sistine Chapel instead of scenes of old Palermo?
It was on my third visit, when I came with Paul and his wife for dinner, that things began to explain themselves. Houston Press food writer Paul Galvani grew up Italian in London, and he is a pasta perfectionist. Nothing sold in supermarkets is good enough for him. He buys pasta from a Houston factory that sells only to wholesale suppliers and restaurants, a place called Milano's Pasta. Paul buys the stuff a hundred pounds at a time and keeps it in the freezer. That's why I wanted him to sample the pasta at Fabio's.
The fettuccine alla Fabio -- fresh pasta with artichokes, mushrooms, green peas, olive oil and garlic, topped with grilled chicken -- was boring, but the pasta itself, Paul agreed, was fabulous. The daily special, fresh Gulf red snapper topped with roasted eggplant, proved to be an inspired combination. The simple slice of eggplant became a slick-textured and complex-flavored sauce as you chewed it with the fish. But a pile of angel-hair pasta tossed with pomodori looked out of place beside it. I always thought putting pasta on every plate was an Italian-American thing. But the pasta beside the fish didn't look nearly as odd as the pasta under the osso buco.
"Osso buco is traditionally served with risotto," Paul said in puzzlement. The veal shank was perfectly cooked; it fell apart at the touch of a fork. And the angel-hair pasta underneath had been drenched in the braising sauce. It was a luscious, if untraditional, way to eat osso buco. But the presentation had Paul convinced that Fabio wasn't Italian. That and the fact that Paul heard him yakking on the phone in Spanish.
As far as the cooking went, we were all in agreement: Pepe is a master. And as Paul confirmed, the quality of the pasta at Fabio's is exceptional. It's the concept of the place that's confusing. The dishes are all old standards, but they are not regional and not authentic. On the other hand, there are no meatballs, hardly any sausage and no cannelloni, so the menu isn't Italian- American either. It's a hodgepodge of Italian food clichés all right, but it's a different hodgepodge from the one we usually see in the United States.
After the plates were cleared away, we took our coffees over to the bar and sat down while Fabio finished his phone conversation. When he hung up, he came over to talk to us.
"Da dove sei?" Paul asked, which means "Where are you from?" in Italian.
"Palermo," said Fabio.
"Come mai parla spagnolo così bene?" Paul quizzed him. "How is it you speak Spanish so well?"
"My family is from Palermo, but they moved to Colombia when I was young," explained Fabio in halting Italian. Spanish is his first language.
Fabio is Italian -- Italian-South American, to be precise. And his menu is more a reflection of his Italian-South American upbringing than of his Sicilian birthplace. Just like Italian-Americans, Italian-South Americans have their own preferences and prejudices when it comes to Italian food. They also have a similar disregard for the rules that say you shouldn't put cheese on fish, you should always serve risotto with osso buco, and you shouldn't mix regions on the same menu.
Don't go to Fabio's looking for cutting-edge Northern Italian cuisine, or for regionally authentic Italian food. Don't go looking for spaghetti and meatballs either. Go for the pasta. Sure, the atmosphere and the Alfredo sauce are old clichés. But so is "Mom's apple pie," and that never kept you from eating it.
Where does he buy this fabulous pasta, Paul wanted to know. As it turns out, Fabio is the guy who started Milano's Pasta. He also had an interest in Houston's other top pasta maker, Giannotti Pasta Factory. Be he Italian, or Italian-Colombian, Fabio is the grandfather of the Houston pasta industry.
"No wonder the pasta is so good," said Paul in admiration.
We decided to call the bet a tie.
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