Last April, Renato De Pirro took over for David Denis as executive chef at Ristorante Cavour, the jewel box of a restaurant inside Uptown Park's Hotel Granduca. Whereas the Provence-born Denis had turned out sumptuous French-accented Italian fare, De Pirro, a native of Tuscany, had a more straightforward mandate: create an utterly authentic Tuscan restaurant in Houston. De Pirro had the chops to do it, having been an executive chef in both Italy and the United States, and spending the last ten years at some of Las Vegas' best-known Italian restaurants, including Valentino (inside the Venetian), Terra Rossa (inside the Red Rock), and Osteria del Circo (inside the Bellagio).
Eating Our Words recently caught up with Chef de Pirro to discuss Ristorante Cavour's evolving menu, working with a Hell's Kitchen winner, the difference between working in Las Vegas and Houston, and more.
EOW: You were an executive chef in Italy, but when you came to work at Valentino in Las Vegas you started as a line cook and worked your way back up. That was a bold move.
RDP: Yes, it was kind of unusual. But I had always wanted to work in the United States, mainly because I wanted to learn English. And it was a big opportunity - Valentino was just opening at the Venetian - and I learned a lot. It was a completely different world. Everything was so much bigger - the restaurant was separate from the hotel, but we had two restaurants in one, and had to manage 140 to 150 people, and had to do a lot of covers.
EOW: So you came over already having an offer? You didn't arrive with a suitcase in your hand and start knocking on doors?
RDP: (laughs) No, I had an offer. I came prepared.
EOW: Was it coincidental that Valentino Houston opened just a few months before you came to Houston?
RDP: Totally coincidental. But I'm still in contact with everybody from Valentino, including Piero [Selvaggio]. We talk all the time. It was a good coincidence, me coming to Houston.
EOW: How did you come to Houston then?
RDP: I was a little overwhelmed after being in Las Vegas for 11 years, working for a big corporation, the big casinos, all that stuff. That said, when [Hotel Granduca owner] Mr. Borlenghi offered me the job here, I was kind of skeptical. I said, "Houston? What am I going to do in Houston?" I'd never been in Houston before. But I decided to come and listen to what he had to say - his vision, his project - and I fell in love right away. It was the exact environment I'd been looking for.
EOW: How so?
RDP: First of all, the challenge. Before, I was just an executive chef for a restaurant. Here, I have the entire hotel: not only the restaurant but also banquets, room service, and the bar. The project was also attractive because the restaurant has a European-style ambiance, which is something you get from the moment you walk in. It's only a 50-chair place. And I love Mr. Borlenghi's vision. He wanted to create something real, food like it would be served in Italy. No Italian-American food, which is what a lot of people expect when they come to an Italian restaurant. Spaghetti and meatballs. Lasagna. Eggplant parmigiana. We were doing great stuff at Valentino and at the Bellagio, but we couldn't keep that stuff off the menu because there was such high demand for it.
Here, it's a totally different experience: We search for the best products and offer a fine-dining experience. We have the opportunity to educate people about food and wine, because the place is small and we can pay attention to every detail. That's what I like the most. And it's working!
EOW: Ristorante Cavour has thus far had a fairly low profile in Houston. Is that intentional?
RDP: You're totally right. When they built this restaurant, it wasn't marketed that much; they wanted it to be a hidden place that you had to find. But lately we're changing things a bit, putting signs up and letting people know that we're here, and that they can come. And come back.
EOW: How would you compare the food here to other fine dining Italian places in Houston?
RDP: Like Mr. Borlenghi says, we're not in competition with anybody. We have a menu that nobody else in the city has, and I don't think we're comparable. We're just going our own way and we try to do our best.
EOW: Last year, you told CultureMap that your favorite breakfast place in Houston was La Madeleine. Care to reconsider?
RDP: Yeah, I went there. But the place I like better is French Riviera Bakery. They have good croissants.
EOW: You have a croissant and a cappuccino in the morning.
EOW: That sounds kind of French.
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RDP: No, no. It's Italian. (laughs) Cappuccino!
Tune in tomorrow for part two of our interview with Chef De Pirro.