Meatball Politics

Frank Mancuso demonstrates his bib technique as we shuffle along with all the other people in line for lunch at Whitney Oaks Hall. The giant building just off Crosstimbers near the junction of I-45 and Loop 610 is the home of the Sacred Heart Society's Thursday spaghetti lunch.

Frank ties the plastic strings under his chin, with the flat sheet of plastic hanging down his back like a cape. "You look like a superhero," I chuckle as I fumble with my own plastic ties. "It's Spaghetti-Man!"

Once the strings are tied into neat bows, we twirl our plastic bibs around so the flat part covers our shirtfronts. We're ready for pasta.


Sacred Heart Society

Whitney Oaks Hall, 816 East Whitney, 713-692-0198. Thursdays only, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Spaghetti: $4.25
Meatballs: 85 cents
Sausage: $1.65
Pig's feet: $1.65
Half-chicken: $4.50

A white-haired man at a table in front of the line hands us orange cafeteria trays and some utensils wrapped in a paper napkin. "How many rolls?" he asks, launching torpedo-shaped Italian bread onto our trays with a pair of stainless-steel tongs.

"Two," says Frank, fielding the throws. I get the same. Then we slide our trays down the shiny steel counter. There's baked chicken on the short menu for those who don't want spaghetti.

Going to the Sacred Heart Society's Thursday spaghetti lunch when you don't want spaghetti would be my definition of an eating disorder.

The menu also lists pig's feet and pork chops. "Pig's feet?" I mutter in surprise.

"They put the pig's feet in the bottom of the sauce pot for flavor," Frank explains. "By the time they're done cooking the red sauce, the pig's feet are falling apart."

I've never heard of putting pig's feet in red sauce, but it sounds so good, my mouth is watering. A man with a big bowl of pasta tossed with sauce fills a plate for each of us. Then we slide down to the next station.

"One and one," Frank tells the man there, who reaches into two adjacent pans and lifts out one link of well-cooked Italian sausage and one large meatball. He places these on top of Frank's spaghetti.

"And a little extra sugo," says Frank, using the Italian word for meat sauce. The sauce man obediently douses the whole plate with hot "red gravy." I parrot Frank's sausage and meatball order. And I also order a pork chop.

After my spaghetti has been decorated, the guy behind the counter hands me a dry-looking bread-crumb-covered fried pork chop on a separate plate. I'm disappointed. For some reason, I'd imagined that the pork chop was simmered in the sugo along with the pig's feet. Oh, well.

We file by the cash register and pay up. Then we wander around the enormous dining hall looking for spots at one of the long tables. The hall seats five or six hundred people, and it's more than half full. It looks like the cafeteria at a big high school, except most of the people are wearing bibs.

One table has what looks like a glass trophy in the shape of Texas with the words "Fourth Ward Table" engraved on it. Not far away is another placard for the First Ward. Companies and clubs bring their own little reservation markers and stake out tables, too.

We find a place to sit down near a rowdy bunch of Italian-American men in their sixties and seventies. Frank goes up to the bar to get us some drinks. There's beer and wine available, but I opt for iced tea.

Finally, we dig into our spaghetti, which is cooked perfectly. The meatball is a touch too dense for me, but the sausage is awesome, and so is the sugo. The sauce is slightly sweet, in the Sicilian style, but exceptionally full-flavored. I sprinkle a blizzard of Parmesan and a healthy dose of crushed red pepper over the pile from the shaker bottles in front of me.

About halfway through my meal, I reach for a plastic pitcher in the middle of the table, thinking it contains water. Instead, it turns out to be full of sugo. Well, as long as I have it in my hand, I figure, and splash more sauce on my plate.

The Italian rolls are excellent. I tear one open and start composing a sandwich with the butt end of the sausage, some of the extra sugo, and a few shakes of red pepper and Parmesan. The sauce-drenched sausage roll is simply divine. Frank and I finish our luncheon with a paper cup full of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry spumoni.

As far as spaghetti lunches are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

Frank Floyd Mancuso is a sales rep for Saint Arnold's Brewing Company. He's been telling me about the spaghetti lunch for some time, but I never got around to going until today. And that's only because Frank called me this morning to remind me.

The Sacred Heart Society spaghetti lunch has been served every Thursday since 1953. Frank grew up eating here. His father, Frank Octavius Mancuso, was a popular Houston city councilman. He's also a veteran of World War II and a former baseball catcher who played in the 1944 World Series. Frank O. Mancuso was elected to the City Council in 1963 and served under six mayors.

The elder Frank Mancuso always presided over "the Italian city council" table, his son explains. The Italian city council was made up of Frank Mancuso, who was the only Italian-American on the council; the Italian-American heads of city departments; and other high-ranking city, county and state employees.

"This is the most popular lunch spot in the city for politicians during election season," Frank explains. At one end of the hall, there's a raised stage with a somber purple curtain at the back and a podium in front. The podium is flanked by two flags on each side. From this very telegenic setting, campaigning political candidates are allowed to address the large lunch crowd.

"But there are some rules," Frank tells me with a big grin. "The politicians are only allowed to talk for three minutes. And before they can get up there, they have to buy a glass of wine for everybody in the hall." At first I assume he's kidding. But then I realize he's serious.

"It will really get going here in October," he says. I make a mental note to come back and observe the spectacle when election season heats up.

The Sacred Heart Society of Little York is an Italian-American Catholic men's organization not affiliated with any particular parish. Proceeds from the spaghetti lunch help support the Houston Food Bank and provide Christmas gifts to the needy. The society also owns the hall, which it rents out for functions.

But right now, charity has had to take a backseat. The society's first priority is to retire the debt incurred when it had to repair flood damage to the hall after Tropical Storm Allison. And the finances aren't looking good.

"Pasta sales are down," a former officer of the men's society, who happens to be sitting next to me, says glumly. The popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets is killing the spaghetti lunch. I suppose that's why the Sacred Heart Society has resorted to putting baked chicken and pork chops on the menu.

On my second visit, I get one meatball and two sausages and skip the pork chop. I also grab an order of pig's feet, which are sitting out on the counter. They are indeed falling apart. But I can't find a scrap of meat on them anywhere. After a couple of mouthfuls of pig skin and fat, I give up.

My lunch companion is extremely amused by the atmosphere. It's such an urban experience, like an East Coast union hall or a gigantic church supper, she says, attempting to get a handle on the crowd. Somebody climbs up the podium to make an announcement. It's Eddie's 93rd birthday, the speaker tells us. Then he leads a couple of hundred people in singing happy birthday. Eddie stands up and takes a bow, and somehow it makes us feel like we've always eaten lunch here on Thursdays.

"Lots of clubs and organizations hold their weekly meetings here," a Sacred Heart Society man says, as if to persuade me to bring my club here for lunch next week. Too bad I don't have a club, I tell him. But I promise him I'll highly recommend the Sacred Heart Society's Thursday spaghetti lunch to anybody I know who'll still eat a plate of old-fashioned pasta.

Admiring my well-cleaned plate, the men's club officer says, "You know you can go back up for more -- the spaghetti is all-you-can-eat."

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