Taking the Heat

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Crapitto's Luck: Last April John Crapitto hit the jackpot when his restaurant, the abysmally named Crapitto's [2400 Mid Lane, (713)961-1161], was mentioned on the Jay Leno show. This February, though, it looked as if Crapitto's luck might be taking a sharp turn for the worse when the restaurant caught fire on Valentine's evening.

The blaze sparked about an hour after closing that night in the kitchen's breaker box. "You can imagine with 30-year-old wiring in a 75-year-old house, it could have burnt to the ground in no time," says Crapitto.

The fact that it didn't he credits to the sharp eyes of a carload of teenagers, who noticed smoke streaming from the roof vents of the restaurant as they drove by. The kids stopped in at a Jack in the Box just down the street, where -- believe it or not -- a truckload of Houston firemen from the nearby Station Three happened to be dining. The four firemen dropped their burgers, jumped on the fire truck and rushed to the scene of the blaze. They summoned a second truck, which arrived within seven minutes.

"The fire captain told me that those seven minutes made all the difference," says Crapitto, with huge relief. "Otherwise, we'd have been looking at a pile of ashes. As far as I'm concerned, those four firemen can eat and drink free for life at my restaurant."

Crapitto plans to take advantage of this near-disastrous turn of events to do some remodeling. He will glass in the wine room downstairs, add leather banquettes to the bar and completely renovate the upstairs of the old house. Formerly the second floor housed only office and storage space; now his architect has designed a private dining room "with a Tuscan feeling" that will seat 25 to 30 diners. Construction will start April 12, and Crapitto fervently hopes to be back in business by August.

The Tree Still Stands: The general manager of Michelangelo's [307 Westheimer, (713)524-7836], Abbas Hussein, is equally grateful for the kindness of observant strangers. On March 23 two passing policemen noticed the attic fire that started in the exhaust fan of the men's restroom. Thanks to their quick report, the damage was minimal, mostly limited to the upstairs. And what about Michelangelo's trademark tree, which sprouts through the roof of the dining room? "The tree is still standing," says Hussein proudly. "That was one of our main concerns, but there was no damage whatsoever to the tree." He hopes to reopen, with newly renovated restrooms, by the time this article sees print.

"Our neighboring restaurants and customers have all been so supportive," says Hussein. "Aldo Catania from La Strada sent over an enormous lunch for my employees who are working on the cleanup, and customers have stopped by to offer their help, too."

Another stroke of luck for Michelangelo's is that it has been exempt from the tangled Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings filed by its well-known Houston owner, Ghulam Bombaywala (perhaps most famous for sharing his rags-to-riches tale with Oprah's audience). Bombaywala's Watermarc Food Management Company also owns several Original Pasta Co. restaurants, Marco's Mexican Restaurants and the Billy Blues Barbecue Bar & Grill on Richmond. Michelangelo's is owned separately, so Houston's first sidewalk cafe should live to celebrate its 30th anniversary in August.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

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