South American Spaghetti
The spaghetti isn't round; it's square and cut thick, like homemade noodles. Maybe it doesn't look like regular spaghetti, but as I slurp another couple of strands, slick with garlicky green pesto sauce, I'm convinced it's the best plate of spaghetti in the city. Did I say "plate"? Actually, the fresh pasta is served on a square Styrofoam dish here at Giannotti's Italian-Argentinean Cafe.
Italian-Argentinean? Yes, that's right. Believe it or not, there are more Italian names than Spanish ones in the Buenos Aires phone book. More than 85 percent of the population of Argentina are descendants of European immigrants, and of that, the majority are Italian. These Italian-South Americans have developed just as many unique food traditions as their Italian kin in North America.
I was introduced to Giannotti's by Houston Press contributor Paul Galvani, who buys all his fresh pasta there. Following Paul's example, I always purchase some fresh spaghetti and fettuccine when I come for lunch. I also get the house-made ravioli from the freezer case. We sampled some fluffy pillows of spinach ravioli in tomato sauce for lunch. There's a nice Parmesan bite to the filling, but the sauce is a little bland.
In truth, Giannotti's is more of a bakery, pasta factory and food-imports store than a restaurant. Which also explains why it isn't open for dinner. Giannotti's owner, Ricardo Giannotti, does a great business cooking and importing the favorite foods of the Houston Italian-South American community.
Where else can you find fresh empanadas, Quilmes beer, Argentine dulce de leche (a famous variety of caramel sauce) and the cookies called alfajores (two wafers with dulce de leche in the middle and a chocolate coating)? There's also the curious tea called yerba mate, which Ricardo Giannotti happens to be drinking one day when I stop in for lunch with two beautiful women.
We order pasta, and while we wait for our lunch, my companions browse around in the back of the cafe, where Argentine products are stacked on retail shelves. "What's this?" one of them wants to know, holding up a bag of yerba mate. There are all sorts of legends attached to this tea; some purport that it's more of a drug than a beverage. Yerba mate contains 196 identified chemical compounds, although 144 of them are also found in tea. Its flavor might remind you of alfalfa.
According to About.com, "Yerba mate supposedly does not contain caffeine, but rather a closely related compound called mateine which is a similar stimulant. Mateine is not as harsh to your body and does not produce the same addictive results." Other people believe that mateine is really the same thing as caffeine.
Whatever it contains, yerba mate is a potent stimulant. And the ritual of consuming it is fascinating. Yerba means "herb" in Spanish, and mate comes from the Quechuan mati, which means gourd, the drink's traditional vessel. I take my companions up to the front of the store where the gourds are sold and take one down to show them. It's about the size of a tennis ball and has a small lid with a hole through which you insert a metal straw called a bombilla. The bombilla has a spoon-shaped strainer built into the end that goes inside.
Ricardo Giannotti overhears our conversation, and since he happens to be drinking yerba mate anyway, he offers to make some for my two attractive friends and me. He packs a gourd full of the dried grasslike tea and then pours in hot water, inserts the bombilla and puts on the lid. "The thing is, everybody has to share the same straw," he apologizes. This isn't because he's short of straws. It's evidently part of the custom. I take a little sip of the tea and attempt to pass the gourd back to Ricardo, but he won't have it. "No, you have to drink the whole thing," he explains. So I slurp all of the hot tea up through the metal straw. Ricardo puts more water over the same tea, and each of the women takes a turn draining the gourd. You can brew the same tea five or six times. "I drink mate all the time," Ricardo says. "It gives you a real boost, and it's much better for you than espresso."
On another visit, I encountered two Houston policemen eating sandwiches. They assured me that Giannotti's served the best sandwiches in the city, and they told me they'd been eating them for years. "In Montrose, this place would be packed," one cop said. In fact, when Giannotti's first opened in 1983, it was right around the corner from Star Pizza on Shepherd. About ten years ago, it relocated to the present Bissonnet location.
The restaurant's clientele is 50 percent Anglo and 30 percent Argentine, with Italians, Uruguayans and others making up the rest. I had the fabulous fresh pasta the first few times I visited, but I noticed that all the South Americans were ordering sandwiches. The sandwich menu includes meatball, sausage and "Giannotti's classic," an Italian cold-cut sandwich that's very much like those found in Houston sub shops. But those same sandwiches are also popular in Buenos Aires.
"They call a sausage sandwich a choripan, short for chorizo con pan, there," Giannotti told me. "But in Argentina they also have some sandwiches you can't find in an American sub shop, like a matambre sandwich." I try a slice of matambre for an appetizer; it's a tasty concoction of beef rolled around cheese and herbs then roasted. It's served in thin slices.
I sampled a classic sandwich, which is served on a crusty, fresh-baked Italian roll and filled with fabulous mortadella, sliced ham, salami and provolone with lettuce, tomato and mayo. It was the sandwich the cops were eating, and they highly recommended it. Although I enjoyed it, the bread-to-filling ratio is a little out of whack. The rolls are spectacular, but there's just too much doughy bread inside them. If I had my way, I'd pull some bread out of the top part of the roll, throw it away and then make the sandwich.
I also tried a beef Milanesa sandwich, which is available with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, or red sauce and provolone. I went for the red sauce. The breaded cutlet resembles a chicken-fried steak, and it makes an incredible sandwich. In this case, the double thickness of the cutlet provides so much meat that the bread-to-filling ratio is vastly improved. And the red sauce makes the bread softer and more savory, too.
Among Anglos, empanadas are the most popular menu item at Giannotti's. I tried a fat chicken empanada, which is made with a distinctive pinched seam across the top that looks like a cock's comb. The shredded chicken filling is seasoned with a spicy Italian sauce.
For dessert, try an Argentine espresso and any dessert made with the rich dulce de leche. The pastries at Giannotti's are baked in-house, so just ask. I also noticed that some of the South Americans prefer to raid the store's cookie section when it comes time to eat dessert. Evidently, nothing goes better with an after-lunch gourd of yerba mate than a box of alfajores.
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