Toque Off

Alberto Baffoni is an Italian chef who worked for eight years in Washington, D.C., before coming to Houston to open his own restaurant. At Simposio (5591 Richmond Avenue, 713-532-0550), he serves Northern Italian food, which is sometimes a challenge in a city whose Italian-American community comes from Southern Italy. We asked Baffoni about the Italian food scene in Houston.

Q. You're from what part of Italy?

A. I'm from the Marche region on the Adriatic coast.

Q. What's the cuisine like there?

A. It's an interesting mix. We are a coastal region, of course. Almost every part of Italy is on the coast, but there are a lot of fishermen in the Marche, so our cuisine features plenty of fresh seafood. There are also mountains nearby; it's a rugged landscape, and from the foothills and the mountains, we get lots of wild game. Rabbits and game birds are a traditional part of our cooking, and so is wild boar and venison.

Q. So do you use tomato sauce in the Marche?

A. Yeah, sure, we make tomato sauce, but it's fresh tomato sauce, not an overcooked sauce with meatballs and cheese in it. In contemporary Northern Italian cuisine, we use fresh tomatoes with extra-virgin olive oil and basil to make a tomato sauce. That's it. And we cook it just a little.

Q. Did you ever see the movie Big Night?

A. Yes, Big Night was a reality for me when we first opened.

Q. When was that?

A. September 1997.

Q. What did your customers say when they saw your menu?

A. People just didn't get it. We had very few customers, and the ones we had would ask for spaghetti and meatballs all the time. I had to tell them no, we don't have meatballs. We still have things on our menu that don't belong there -- like Caesar salad. Caesar salad isn't Italian. If you went to Italy and asked for Caesar salad, they would look at you like you were crazy. But people always ask for it here, so we keep it on the menu. Sometimes people don't respect the idea of a regional Italian restaurant.

Q. Do you get a lot of requests for sauce on the side?

A. Oh, yeah, all the time.

Q. What do you do?

A. I give them the sauce on the side. I gave up on that one a long time ago. But luckily things are changing. I see much more interest now in Northern Italian cooking than when I started. People in the United States are educating themselves about food, and things are changing. On the East Coast, there is already a lot of interest in all different kinds of Italian food. The East Coast is more open to high-end Italian restaurants. Many people in Houston think Italian food should be inexpensive.

Q. I've noticed a difference in taste between the Italian-American communities of the East Coast and Italian-American communities in Houston and New Orleans. They make their red sauce with more sugar and more pepper in Texas and Louisiana, for instance.

A. That's because many of the Italian-Americans in Houston are of Sicilian descent. In the 1920s the Houston harbor attracted a lot of Sicilian dockworkers. Sicilians cook with thicker sauces, and they use a little bit more garlic and peppers. Their food is spicier than Northern Italian food. My cooking is influenced by the Northern Italian chefs who I studied with. Although the Marche region is actually in the middle of Italy, my cooking is more like that of Northern Italy.

Q. What's the specialty of the Marche?

A. My hometown is Fano, which is the city where the best brodétto comes from.

Q. What's the difference between Italian brodétto and French bouillabaisse?

A. They are very similar; brodétto is made with a fish stock and a touch of tomato with wild fennel, which gives it a licorice flavor. Bouillabaisse is made with a fish stock flavored with tomato and saffron. Both have an assortment of fish and shellfish. I use shrimp, calamari, scallops, mussels, salmon, striped bass, tuna and whatever else I can get that's fresh.

Q. What other regional specialties do you serve?

A. I am doing a Piedmont dinner pretty soon. In the fall, I serve black truffles and white truffles when I can get them. I have pretty good connections for truffles in Italy, but unfortunately, last year wasn't a very good year for them.

Q. I notice that none of your fish dishes include any cheese.

A. I don't combine fish and cheese. I think cheese is overwhelming on seafood. I know that Italian-American restaurants in Houston do it all the time, but Italians don't.

Q. Have you ever tasted it?

A. Yes, and I think I have an open palate. I am willing to try anything. But I have never tasted a combination of fish and cheese that tasted good to me.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh