Polls and surveys on U.S. food preferences routinely show pizza to be the most popular choice for those dining out, taking out or delivering in. How this minor item of Neapolitan cuisine came to conquer a nation, the majority of whose citizens have difficulty pronouncing "mozzarella," is fodder for a doctoral dissertation rather than a column. Let us merely take it as a given fact of life.
Every city has its acknowledged standard-bearer of pizza style. In Chicago, a city proud of a certain hair-on-the-knuckle approach to life, visitors are directed to Gino's. In New York City, there is Ray's in Greenwich Village -- still, perhaps, the New World's ur-pizza. Los Angeles has given us Wolfgang Puck's pies, served on a crust as thin as an old-fashioned movie star and topped with ingredients that would get a Neapolitan chef run out of town.
Houston, as everyone knows, has Star Pizza [2111 Norfolk, (713)523-0800; 140 South Heights Boulevard, (713)869-1241]. Persons who are subtly attuned to the local pizza gestalt know that the one to order at Star is a Joe's Special, deep dish, with whole wheat crust. (Persons who don't always believe what they read may confirm the preceding statement with any veteran member of the Star waitstaff.)
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Last year Hank and Marilyn Zwirek, owners of the Star Pizza mini-empire, acquired four buildings located on ten lots around the corner from the Heights branch. The properties house or have housed some Houston institutions: Leo's Mexican Restaurant [77 Harvard, (713)861-5440], the self-proclaimed Fabulous Satellite Lounge [3616 Washington Avenue, (713)869-2665] and the Heights State Bank, long the site of Rockefeller's, the once truly fabulous venue for major touring acts, but now merely a rental hall. Around the corner at 70 Heights Boulevard is a building that used to house the Action Printing company -- not a legendary spot, and the only structure, as Marilyn Zwirek states, that is not being preserved.
"We're going to tear it down and make more parking spaces. It is not an architectural monument or anything like that," she says.
The top, third floor of Rockefeller's -- "5,500 square feet," according to Zwirek -- will probably be leased out as office space, although the Zwireks have no tenant lined up. Meanwhile, the Heights branch of Star will move into the Leo's location after the Leo's lease runs out in February 2001. The reasons for the move are two-fold: The Zwireks want more kitchen space, and they don't own the property on Heights. Meanwhile, Felix Reynosa, son of founder Leo Reynosa and a co-owner of the restaurant, says, "We'll stay in business." But as far as having secured a new location, he adds, "We don't have one yet."
For those not privileged to be native Houstonians, Leo Reynosa began his restaurant on Shepherd Drive in 1942. In his youth, the restaurateur lived quite a different life, riding with the irregular cavalry of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. In the late '70s Leo experienced a brush with fame of a different sort. Houston's most famous rock band, ZZ Top, featured a Leo's dinner on the inside cover of its hit album Tres Hombres. Members of the band, with their distinctive "sagebrush bohemian" beards (as a New York Times writer once described them), are still seen from time to time at the restaurant.