The restaurant industry is known for grueling work, long hours standing and heavy competition. Imagine not only staying in this industry for more than 50 years, but doing it at such a high level that your restaurant is still regarded as one of the finest in Houston. That is exactly what Tony Vallone has accomplished with his namesake establishment, Tony's.
Every sitting president since Johnson has dined there. There's no telling which celebrity, high-powered businessman or politician is going to walk in, so Vallone and his staff always have to be prepared to meet — and, ideally, exceed — their expectations.
Some people start restaurants and decide the ultimate goal is to get to the point where they never have to set foot in the kitchen. Not Vallone. He still has a chair in there. “I still oversee the food, even though we have a wonderful chef,” he says. (Tony’s executive chef is young, energetic Kate McClean, who was featured earlier this year in a Houston Press cover story on up-and-coming chefs.)
Vallone has taught each of his chefs his classic recipes and techniques: how to make the tender pasta and when to add a bit of butter to sauces so there's a silky sheen. “I’m a very good saucier,” Vallone said with pride. “That’s my real passion. Pastas, soups and sauces are the very soul of the restaurant. The heart is the dining room. The soul is the kitchen, and the very center of the soul is those three items.”
When he started Tony’s in a modest location on Sage Road in 1965, it was difficult to get fresh ingredients even from other parts of the United States, much less from Italy. “It was a whole different world. We couldn’t get any product. We didn’t have refrigerated trucks yet. You couldn’t get clams and mussels. They were on the East Coast,” Vallone explained. “You couldn’t get calamari. I was doing them fried, stuffed and with pasta, but I had to go to the bait camps to buy them. It was very cheap — a dollar for a large bag. It was hard to get risotto. We couldn’t get prosciutto from Italy. It had been outlawed. You had to buy American-produced. The products were very different.”
Tony’s served pasta with seafood, and at the time that was a new thing for Houstonians. “People were just raving about it and it was something I grew up on. They were used to the American-Italian restaurants we had in those days,” Vallone said.
Many ingredients and preparation techniques considered commonplace now were regarded as gourmet wonders back then. In 1966, Houston Post writer George Fuermann thought it was remarkable that Tony’s lasagna was made with homemade pasta. “I didn’t know how to do it any other way!” said Vallone, cracking a smile. “I was doing stuff I grew up on. It was peasant food. We really didn’t have any money, but he couldn’t believe the lightness of it.”
Modern shipping techniques and importing finally enabled Vallone to secure the ingredients he'd wanted to use all along. To make true Italian pasta, Tony’s uses flour from Naples, Sicilian sea salt and Italian bottled water. Tomatoes come from San Marzano. Vallone imports his own brand of rich, unfiltered olive oil from his mother’s hometown of Corleone, Sicily. (It’s available for customers to purchase and take home.) Of course, there are luxurious, fresh truffles, too — white, black and chestnut — the availability of which is hampered only by the seasons.
Tony’s has long had an extensive wine program, but in the '60s guests had to sign up for a “private club membership” in order to enjoy a glass. “You signed this book and we gave you a card," described Vallone. "You had to have it on you, because otherwise we couldn’t sell liquor in the state of Texas. (A similar workaround still exists in restaurants in “dry” areas around Houston, such as The Heights.)
In 1972, Vallone moved to a fancier location on Post Oak at the urging of his longtime landlord and friend, Gerald D. Hines. It was there that Tony's was firmly ensconced as the go-to restaurant for the rich and famous, thanks in no small part to Houston Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger, who'd taken quite a fancy to the place. Eventually, the opportunity came up to create a restaurant that truly matched Vallone's ambitions. “I could have stayed there forever, but I’d been there for 33 years,” said Vallone. “The ceilings were low, the kitchen was small. I could remodel, but I couldn’t do anything about the ceilings or the kitchen. We were right up on the property line.”
In 2004, Vallone had the existing Tony's location built from the ground up. “I could have a big kitchen, high ceilings, private dining rooms and do what I wanted to do,” he said. It also got rid of having to deal with those famous Galleria-area traffic snarls.
Vallone understands that the best fine dining is a mix of great food, wonderful service and a bit of showmanship. Tony’s is now spacious enough to facilitate that last part. “We needed more room to perform. You need to set the stage and orchestrate. It’s very hard to choreograph if you’re very small and cramped,” he explained.
Indeed, the synchronized service dance at Tony’s is utterly entrancing. Many of Vallone's employees have been with him for more than a decade. A mere word, phrase, gesture or glance is all it takes to set them into motion, whether it be bringing out the next course or decanting a bottle of wine. Vallone knows what his customers expect, his employees know what he wants and he never has to give the same instruction twice.
The high expectations are part of what’s given Vallone a reputation for being a tough businessman and employer. “I’m a perfectionist. I guess you realized that,” he said with a rueful grin.
He credits his wife, Donna, for being the warm, approachable side of Tony’s. “She softens me a lot. I can pop the whip and keep going. I’m fast-moving. She’s not like that, and I wish I was more like her,” he explained in a tone of obvious pride. “She’s got this wonderful way about her; everyone loves her and she’s real! She was a schoolteacher forever and in some ways, I think she still is. Everyone loves seeing her. She has this infectious laugh and smile. She’s a very warm person.”
When did Vallone realize that he’d really made it? That he wasn’t just a success but had built one of the most respected restaurants in the United States? In a sense, he never has. “I’m a worrier," he says. "I live by the adage that you’re only as good as the last meal. I don’t know if I realize it to this day. I still worry and work. I’m here all the time. But I love it.”
Some of Vallone's dishes have been enduring favorites for decades. The chicken-stuffed cannelloni has been around since the very first Tony’s location. In the 1970s, Vallone starting offering soufflés for dessert. Of course, people still rave about the pasta and seafood dishes, too.
Will he ever retire? That is a bad bet. He said, “No, I can’t imagine not working. I had a customer say, ‘Tony, you’re getting old. When are you going to hang it up?’ Well, first of all, I don’t feel old. Second of all, I’m never going to hang it up. I hope they carry me out with pasta in one hand and a fish in the other. That’s me. I love what I do.”