With newer, hipper Italian restaurants opening in Houston every year, it can be easy to overlook the fine-dining behemoth that is Tony's in favor of something, perhaps, less dated. But this would be a mistake.
Tony's opened in 1965 as a mom-and-pop Italian eatery serving hearty bowls of pasta and recipes owner Tony Vallone learned from his family. In part due to his interest in the culinary realm and in part thanks to prodding from a developer, Gerald Hines, Vallone began transitioning to fine dining. Now, nearly 50 years later, Tony's is the place you suggest to your wealthy, retired friends when they want to drop some dough for a birthday dinner. When people talk about Tony's, they tend to lump it in a category of "expensive, fancy and for an older crowd" or "expensive, fancy and with a tasting menu."
If you've never been to Tony's, though, or if you haven't been in a long time, I urge you to go back, and soon. Yes, you might run into an oil baron treating his family to a lavish meal with ten courses of small,tasting-menu portions. But you'll also find large bowls of perfect pasta and impeccable steaks and Tony Vallone himself stopping by tables to check on customers while his wife greets diners at the door. It's still the same mom-and-pop joint Vallone opened back in '65. It's just a little bigger now.
The pasta on Tony's menu is what grabbed my attention on a recent visit. Previously, I'd had only the tasting menu at Tony's. It's much like tasting menus at other upscale restaurants in that it's a number of small-to-medium-sized plates thoughtfully arranged and featuring a bit of foam here and gel there and some avant-garde flavor combinations as well.
Tony's tasting menu is wonderful--don't get me wrong. Last time I ate there, Grant Gordon was in the kitchen taking fine dining to new levels with sometimes challenging but always delicious and unique plates of food. And now Kate McLean is leading the show, and her creativity is definitely on display in a number of the tasting menu dishes.
But when I think of Italian food, I don't think of avant-garde. I think of warm, hearty dishes that remind me of Florence and family and little trattorias that have been in the same family for 80 years. And, as I discovered, Tony's does that, too.
Of course, I didn't start my meal that way. I started with seared foie gras with a blood orange reduction, because any time I see foie gras, I order it. And it was, as I suspected it would be, incredible. The blood orange syrup enhanced with a bit of orange zest has enough acid and bitterness to cut through the fat of the foie beautifully, allowing both elements to shine.
I then moved on to a truffle soufflé, because, much like foie gras, any time I see truffles on a menu--real truffles, not that fake truffle oil that everyone is so obsessed with--I order it. I'm a sucker for good truffles and foie. The truffle soufflé is light as air. It lets out a small breath when you dig in with a spoon, and the earthy aroma of truffles fills the air around you. It's subtle but aromatic, almost like perfume. It doesn't melt in your mouth per se, but it's reminiscent of the lightness and fluffiness of cotton candy.
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After sharing these two appetizers, my dining companion and I really dug into the menu. We each ordered a pasta dish; he chose pappardelle bolognese, and I chose fettuccine with jumbo lump crab and Vallone sausage in vodka sauce. Then we ordered the classic vitello valdostana, a center cut veal chop stuffed with fontina and topped with mushrooms.
Each dish was as robust and filling as one could hope for in a meal of Italian pasta and veal. The bolognese was a simple, traditional meat sauce with wonderfully chewy homemade pasta, and the fettuccine had a bit of spice thanks to the juicy Vallone sausage. And then there's the veal, which oozes cheese when you slice into it and is just as tender and succulent as any meat you'd find at a top steakhouse.
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And lest you think Tony's is stuffy and old hat, check out the dessert menu, now featuring cronuts. Yes, those cronuts. The ones invented by Dominique Ansel that started a national craze. Vallone tried them when he was in New York and fell in love, so he had his pastry chef create mini versions--cronut holes, if you will--to dip in a trio of sauces.
But the best part of Tony remains Vallone himself. He's a gem to watch. The man can work a room like no other, but it's clear that, though he's chatting and laughing, he's perpetually thinking about what to get done next. He'll stop a server and whisper something in his ear before ambling to another table to check on his guests. He'll pause to put an arm around his lovely wife, Donna. He'll decline invitations to sit, even for a moment. Even after more than 50 years in the business, he's not showing any signs of slowing down. And neither is Tony's.