Restaurant Reviews

Truck-Stop Italian

Know the Italian word for "Bubba"?

If so, use it at Big Humphrey's Pizza and Italian Restaurant in Pearland.

This unlikely outlet of serious Italian cuisine, nestled between an auto parts store and a Chevy truck dealership in Brazoria County, is surrounded almost exclusively by customers' pickups. The walls inside tout pictures of erstwhile professional wrestlers and posters billing their upcoming fights. It's summertime, and there's still an artificial Christmas tree standing, topped with a Santa hat. Jasper Vitale, the guy at the cash register, wears suspenders and a perpetual grin, and talks nonstop to the customers coming in and checking out. On a table next to the register is a hairy black toy spider that jumps when Vitale squeezes a bulb in the cash drawer.

"Josephine, she's watching the counter there," Vitale says of the plastic arachnid.

Taking in this King of the Hill atmosphere, customers might wonder about the food. But all they need to do is sit down and order. Vitale and his family use recipes from Vitale's grandmother, who was born and raised in Sicily. They also supplement Grandma's Italian dishes with good ole American and Tex-Mex favorites, as if conceding that truckers do not live by the meatball alone.

An item in the pizza category, for example, is a giant chalupa made with Italian crust, then topped with beef, sausage, refried beans, melted American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, black olives and salsa ($7.70, small; $14.05, medium; $18.65, large). Elsewhere on the menu is a chicken-fried steak and french fries ($7.25) and Big Humphrey's wildly popular half-pound hamburger ($3.30).

Try to ignore these temptations, however, and stick with the Italian food. The deluxe pizza ($11.65, small; $15.95, medium; $21.75, large) comes loaded with cheese, sausage, beef, ham, onions, garlic, mushrooms, black olives, bell peppers, jalapeños and anchovies; it is, in short, a pizza lover's delight -- assuming, of course, the pizza lover is a carnivore and an extremely hungry one at that, since the large is said to weigh eight pounds. The dough is made fresh each morning, and the crust is light and only half as thick as deep-dish, what Vitale calls a medium Sicilian crust.

The more traditional Italian offerings are what you would expect from such a restaurant: big, cheesy and mostly satisfying. The eggplant Parmesan ($8.95) consists of three giant slabs of the vegetable, fried just right, topped with a dark, rich tomato sauce and cheese, and served with a generous side of pasta and sauce. The cheese ravioli ($6, small; $7.55, large) are tender cushions stuffed with -- what else? -- cheese and served (again) with pasta on the side. The meatballs, at least on the night we tried them, were tasty but a bit tough. A meatball should almost fall apart at the touch of a fork; it should never have to be cut with one. Still, the spaghetti and meatballs ($6.20, small; $7.85, large) hit the spot on one count: sheer volume. Like all the entrées at Big Humphrey's, the spaghetti is large enough for two and comes with a salad and garlic bread.

Those who want wine with their pasta will have to bring it themselves. Brazoria County is dry, or damp, really, since the proprietors can serve beer. The staff encourages customers to bring their own Chianti or cabernet, which the operators can't sell but will gladly open and serve in wine glasses.

That's trick No. 1 to total enjoyment of Big Humphrey's; trick No. 2 is more important: Patrons should know the history behind the name. Big Humphrey's goes back to founder Joe Vitale, a professional wrestler (hence the pictures on the walls) who met syndicated cartoonist Ham Fisher during a six-month wrestling gig in New York in the 1940s. After they became friends, a huge redheaded wrestler, who looked not unlike Vitale, started showing up in Fisher's Joe Palooka cartoon strip. The character's name was Big Humphrey.

Fisher eventually asked Vitale to become Big Humphrey in real life. Taking the offer seriously, Vitale changed his professional name to Big Humphrey and started wearing the polka-dot jacket and beanie cap donned by the character in the strip. In the cartoon, Big Humphrey ate all the time, and he rode a three-wheeled bike with a small house on back, in which his sister cooked around the clock to feed her brother's voracious appetite. Vitale/Big Humphrey had a similar tricycle constructed with what looked to be an outhouse on the back (no sister, alas), a contraption that he rode in parades.

The makeover vaulted Vitale's popularity ratings, and he got a ten-year wrestling contract in 1948 in Houston. In between matches he started a restaurant on Park Place Boulevard, then worked there full-time when his contract expired and he retired from wrestling. His son, Jasper, helped with the operation and, much later, recruited his own family: wife Glenda, daughters Lisa and Angela, and son Joey.

Jasper and his family took over when Big Humphrey died in 1977. Now Glenda does most of the cooking, assisted by 26-year-old Lisa, who received a degree from the University of Houston's Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, and 24-year-old Joey, who graduated from the Culinary Arts Program at the Art Institute of Houston.

The restaurant was a success almost from the day it opened in 1948. But in the early '80s, Jasper Vitale started noticing that customers' checks bore addresses in Pearland and other bedroom communities. He and his family had already built a house in Pearland in 1979. Neighbors at civic functions constantly asked him, "When are you going to open up here?"

"My wife and I were driving one day along here and saw this little hole-in-the-wall and said, 'Why don't we give it a try?' " Vitale recalls.

"Delivery only," his wife replied.

In 1986 they started renovating. Friends, neighbors and longtime customers stopped by during construction and asked if they were going to put in tables. So they did.

"We closed the Park Place location for two weeks to open the Pearland restaurant, and we had so many customers -- so many of our old Park Place customers -- that we decided to close the Park Place restaurant permanently," Vitale says, squeezing the bulb inside the cash drawer to make his spider jump.

Big Humphrey, the wrestling restaurateur who knew a thing or two about seizing opportunities, would no doubt be proud.

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Carol Rust