Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio, on Honoring His Mother, and Selling His House and Harley to Finance the Restaurant He Named After Her

This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Parts two and three will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.

What's in a name? For Hawthorn's Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio, it's a reflection of his heritage, his family, a symbol of honor and respect. Granted, the name doesn't roll off the tongue very easily, but it's big and bold, like its six-foot-five-inch tall owner. I still remember the first time I tried his eggplant parmigiania -- a revelation of textures, color and flavor. The execution was flawless, the ingredients pure, an example of Palazzo-Giorgio at his finest. Last week, we sat down with this fine chef for a candid chat about everything from his name to his days as a restaurant owner and his philosophy in creating a menu for Hawthorn.

EOW: So I am with chef...

RPG: Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio.

EOW: That's long name.

RPG: It is. And you know, I changed it to add my mother's maiden name.

EOW: Why did you do that?

RPG: To honor her. Because my upbringing, my culture, my cooking, everything was more from her side of the family, the Palazzo side. So when she passed away in 2010 -- my other restaurant was called Sabetta, and that was named after her; Sabetta's short for Elisabetta -- I just wanted to honor my mom. I went before this judge, and he said, "You sure you want the hyphen in there?" And I said, "Yeah" -- because that was the whole point of including her in my last name, but he kept on insisting that I think about it.

EOW: Ah, so before you were known as Riccardo Giorgio. And Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio is a new name? Why did I not know that?

RPG: Yeah, you're the first to know that. So, I'm waiting and the judge says "Well?" And I said, "Leave it in, leave it in." And then about a week later, I thought, "I should have listened to him!" because everywhere I went, it was like, "What's your name?" And I'd say "Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio." And people would be like "Puh-laazzo -what? How do you spell that?"

EOW: So, both of the last names are Italian. Are your roots Italian?

RPG: Yes.

EOW: Tell me about that -- how much of your Italian heritage played a part in your culinary career?

RPG: I think it played 100 percent, because growing up -- I have a brother and a sister, I was the youngest. My brother was heavily into sports. I liked sports, but I was very artistic, and loved to cook from an early age -- just loved watching with my mom and my grandmother. My mother's side of the family was very instrumental in me taking this path. I loved the way she cooked. Everything she did was done so well. She did everything from scratch. Quality was very important to her. But hospitality was my mother's strongest suit.

EOW: How so?

RPG: She was a server, in the sense that she loved to serve people in our home.

EOW: So you're growing up eating what?

RPG: Growing up eating Italian -- pasta, meat, vegetables, but not really Americanized Italian food. Like not spaghetti and meatballs and not lasagna, though that is Italian. The emphasis was more on the process of the food not being handled a lot, just minimally, and buying the best that she could buy.

EOW: What is your first memory of, "Ah, this is food that I love so much."

RPG: Gosh, I was really young -- five, six, seven years old. I started cooking when I was nine -- out of necessity because my mother had to go back to work, so she wasn't home to cook dinner for us. But she would prep and get everything ready in the morning, and when I'd get home from school, there'd be a note on the refrigerator that would say, "Take this, put this in the oven at this temperature for this long, and do this and this..." And I would make dinner!

EOW: So there were step-by-step instructions. Do you remember what you were making?

RPG: Oh, yeah, I remember when I was nine years old, I made my first apple crostata -- the dough and everything. And I was just so proud of myself.

EOW: So fast-forward to -- you have your own restaurant. You were the executive chef at Simposio, and then Sabetta opened...

RPG: 2010.

EOW: For how long?

RPG: (Sighs.) Sadly, eight months.

EOW: Eight months? Do you mind talking about it?

RPG: No, I don't mind. We had great reviews actually. We did really well.

EOW: What were you wanting to do there?

RPG: It was pan- or regional Italian. I did food from all the regions in Italy, and my wine list was strictly Italian. And I sourced wines from those regions as well, so the food and wine pairings really did work together.

EOW: And you said you named that after your mother?

RPG: Yes, Sabetta. And -- I don't know if you remember the economy in 2010; it was pretty rough, and because it was a new restaurant, money was difficult to source through lenders and investors. And so my wife and I, we sold our home in Sugar Land, took all our savings, I sold my Harley, and put all our money together and believed -- er, hoped at least -- that it would get us through summer, because I opened up in May, and then once October came around and the season opened up, that we would be able to recoup, and...I didn't have enough.

But we built a guest base, and in fact, I have guests that come here that say they were so excited to find me here, because they used to frequent Sabetta. And Tony Mandola would come in every weekend with his wife. And I would think, "Gosh, he has his own restaurant!" But he loved the food, and he enjoyed my wife and me, and he wanted to support us.

EOW: So it was just the economy...

RPG: Right. (Pragmatically) I was underfunded. You know...I was optimistic.

EOW: Knowing that the economy was so bad, why did you choose that time?

RPG: Because the property became available and it was almost turnkey, and we thought, "Gee, we're going to save a ton of money because we won't have to invest in a build-out, we won't have to use money for anything except for some cosmetics."

EOW: What was there before?

RPG: There was an Italian restaurant there for 12 or 13 years, and then it closed and then it opened up as Zoe's, I think.

EOW: Where was it located?

RPG: It's where Torchy's Tacos is now on Shepherd.

EOW: Oh! Torchy's was Sabetta, which turned into the Grateful Taco, which is now Torchy's Tacos. Oh, wow! That was a great location. That's so unfortunate. What made you finally throw in the towel?

RPG: (Laughs.) We maxed out all our credit cards because I just wouldn't give up. And we got to a point where we finally went to another lender, and they finally said yes, they'd lend us a bridge loan of 50 grand. And it was the end of August, and I said to my wife, "What do we do?" I said "You know, we don't have any cash left."

EOW: And you and your wife were both working in the restaurant, so you didn't have any income to offset the loss...

RPG: Well, actually she kept her job, thank God. So I said, "What do you want to do? If we take the 50 and it doesn't work out, it's not enough, then we owe 50 plus all that we owe now, and I think we should cut our losses."

EOW: So it was you!

RPG: We made the decision together, but I could see how taxing it was for my wife. She was very anxious. We cried.

EOW: In hindsight, was there anything you would have done differently?

RPG: My wife will kick me for this, but no, I wouldn't have done it differently.

EOW: Well, good for you! So, taking away from that experience, do you have advice for chefs who want to strike out on their own?

RPG: This is probably going to sound puzzling as well: If there's a chef out there who has such a passion for what he does, like I do, and he just really, really all his life has wanted to do that, I'd tell him to go for it. Be funded, but go for it. Just go for it!

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Palazzo-Giorgio.

Hawthorn 3200 Kirby, Ste. 106 Tel: (713)523-3600

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham