As we covered at the end of Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Alberto Baffoni, after a highly successful run at his first Houston restaurant, Simposio, he sold his interest. Not every endeavor is a success story, though. His second place, Sapori, survived only about eight months.
Sometimes a failure means picking yourself up, dusting off and starting again, and that’s what Baffoni did. After Sapori closed, Baffoni visited his parents in Italy, then returned to Houston to work in other people’s restaurants. He did a year-long stint at Mezzanotte in Cypress and then left there to work in the kitchen of The Briar Club under executive chef Lance Warren. It was a good opportunity, but so low profile that many of his old patrons thought he’d left Houston altogether.
A chat with an old friend on Linked In led Baffoni to reconnect with Andrea Magi. They originally met in culinary school but had lost contact for 30 years. Magi went on to be a professional boxer, but in time returned to his love for food. He had started the Mascalzone restaurants in London and was about to open two more locations in Houston.
Baffoni met Magi afterward in London and was offered the job of being executive chef over the two Houston locations. Baffoni spent time in the London locations and then returned to Houston to help replicate the concepts, first at 12126 Westheimer and then at 1500 Shepherd.
The atmospheres at the two Houston locations differ from each other. The Westheimer one is more suburban and is patronized by many families, while the Shepherd one is populated more by upwardly mobile couples and singles. “I think the people in the Shepherd area are more used to traveling,” mused Baffoni. “That’s not to put Westheimer down. There’s a great clientele there, too.”
Also, the West Houston location is larger and sports a big, red-tiled pizza oven that the smaller Shepherd location simply doesn’t have enough room to accommodate. The kitchen at the first location is bigger, too, so the fresh pastas are made there and transported to the Shepherd location. It’s also used for catering orders.
The patio at the Shepherd location was still a work in progress when it opened, but it’s done now. It’s wood-decked and adorned with colorful containers of flowers — perfect for a mild evening or sunny day.
The Houston menus aren’t just repeats of the ones in London. They are reflections of Baffoni’s history in Houston and several of the dishes he is known for have been added, like his veal tonnato.
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Mascalzone aims to serve authentic Italian food. Baffoni says the gentleman in charge of pizzas was a pizza master in Italy. “He does a very great job. He’s very particular and wants to keep traditional Italian. He doesn’t want to do thick crusts or anything like that.”
For first-time visitors to Mascalzone, Baffoni recommends the tuna tartare, veal tonnato and the fresh pasta dishes, like the strozzapreti broccoli e salsiccia with Italian sausage and broccoli in a lightly spicy extra virgin olive oil sauce. “It’s all twisted by hand and there’s quite a bit of labor involved with it,” says Baffoni. People who want firmer pasta or are avoiding eggs will want to aim for the dry pasta section of the menu.
Baffoni also pointed out that Mascalzone offers “gluten-friendly” pasta. It’s gluten-free, but because the environment has gluten, he thinks it’s better to say gluten-friendly in case someone has allergies and needs to be very careful.
In closing, Baffoni just wants people to know that even after 18 years, he’s still happy to be in Houston and welcomes everyone to visit the Mascalzone locations.