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Tony Vallone's Sicilian Homestyle Cooking at Ciao Bello

"You don't even need a knife," the woman seated next to me, the wife of a prominent local judge, advised. I'd just picked up my knife and fork, ready to take a bite of a delicious-looking piece of Gaddina a 'Muddicata, Sicilian for our second course of breaded baked chicken. Taking her advice, I put down my knife and used my fork to cut through the drumstick. Sure enough, the chicken easily gave way; it was moist, fall-off-the-bone tender, the flavor slightly spiced and savory, tasting homemade, and so, so good.

This was just one of the highlights at last week's kickoff dinner for Tony Vallone's new Regional Italian Cuisine Dinner Series. Entitled Un Giardino in Bocca, or A Garden of Flavors, this first dinner featured the foods from Vallone's home in Sicily.

On paper, it was billed as four courses and five wines, but in typical Vallone style, you get so much more than what's on paper when attending one of his dinners. He hasn't been in the business for more than 40 years without learning a thing or two about entertaining, and events like these are as much a celebration of food as they are about dining.

The joyous spirit of the event permeated the room, which buzzed with positive energy as guests were treated to antipasti of panelle, arancini and caponata: crispy chickpea, prosciutto and salami fritters; stuffed saffron rice balls; and fantastic eggplant caponata. A salad of fresh bufala mozzarella with grape tomatoes, Cerignola olives and fava beans was also served, and wine glasses were generously filled with a beautifully pink-colored, translucent 2012 Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Sicilian Rosé wine, barely hinting at the bounty to come.

And what a bounty it was. Our primo, or first course, a chiagne a 'caserieccia, or lasagna with hand-formed meatballs and peas, was almost my undoing. It was heartbreakingly delicious, and I tried to slow down my eating so it wouldn't disappear too quickly, the pillowy, cheesy yet surprisingly light-tasting dish so luscious that I was swooning in enjoyment. "We have a saying in Vietnamese, which is that it touches your lips and then melts down your throat," I said. My entire table agreed, their scraped-empty plates, and approving nods of satisfaction a testament to the dish's utter perfection.

A terzo, or third course, an al dente rigatoni with meat and sausage gravy seemed simple enough until a server came around with a huge platter piled high with short ribs and whole Italian sausages -- the meats used to make the gravy -- asking if we'd like a few of pieces. I thought it might be a fluke of timing that the meat came after the pasta, but found out that it is an normal Italian practice to serve the meat separately.

The whole room let out a collective gasp when the servers wheeled out what can only be described as a giant ice cream cake decorated with strawberries, big enough to feed a wedding of 200 and bearing bright sparklers that lit up the room like fireworks. It was incredible in size, and I'm told it took a huge team effort to put together. Boy, did it wow. And yet it was just one of the several dolci, or desserts, that we received that night. Vallone's signature house-made cannolis, trays full of different types of Sicilian cookies, and delicate pineapple half-moons filled with lemon ice were also passed around to guests before the night came to an end.

The menu for the evening, written by Vallone himself in Sicilian, Italian, and English, was comprised of what he called "simple peasant food." They were the Sicilian dishes he'd grown up eating at home, dishes that you wouldn't go to a restaurant for. But served at Ciao Bello, created by chef Bobby Matos and his team using Vallone's family recipes, simple was amazingly extraordinary.

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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