The scene: The waning days of Advent, Christmas coming up. I'm winding up the year for clients and getting ready for the holiday with family.

Out of the blue, a cryptic message from an Italian man that no one wants to cross. Tony Faour, the BBQ Godfather, master of smoked meats and sautéed mushrooms. Tony's reputation is known all up and down I-45: If you have a craving for excellent BBQ, Tony can hook you up, and you don't have to wait hours for the privilege. He is a gracious host. He may, in the future ask you for a favor. It may not be pleasant. Today his instructions were simple:

"Meet me at Phil's. I have cannoli."

Phil would be Phil Nicosia, proprietor of Pallotta's Italian Grill, and another Italian businessman you do not want to cross. Phil controls the world's supply of Dominick's Mud, la chac la bread, and an addictive substance he'll only identify as "Number 84". Get on Phil's naughty list, and these and other vital substances disappear from your life. No rehab facility in the world can help you when you can't get Number 84.

I arrive at Phil's place, festively decorated for the holidays, filled with local residents chowing down on Phil's great Italian food. These citizens had no idea what was about to go down, literally across the room from them.

I casually sauntered up to the bar, and noticed that Tony had brought his crew. His lovely bride was at his side. He'd also brought his consigliere, the saucy brunette known only as Brittany SoFly, the woman who'll present your BBQ with a smile... for a price. (Actually a very reasonable price, considering the quality of both the BBQ and the smile.)

Taking a spot at the bar, I noticed a mysterious blonde next to me. We made eye contact, and it was none other than Kim Bellini, foodie femme fatale, fantastic photographer, and renowned expert on ranch dressing and cream gravy. Kim's finely-tuned palate for all things creamy made her an obvious choice to judge these traditional Sicilian pastries.

Was I in over my head? Me, a simple boy who loves good food, sitting down with these dangerous characters, daring go toe-to-toe with them and declare my favorite?

Well, mom always liked me. Armed with that comforting thought, I kicked back the Coca-cola I ordered, my resolve steeled.

After some pleasant chit-chat where the competitors took measure of each other and exchanged friendly barbs, the cannoli appeared.

Both were beautiful examples of the pastry chef's art. Phil's were slightly thick, bursting with creamy filling, each end dotted with the oft-seen candied cherry. Tony's were lighter, more delicate, the ends festooned with crushed, salted pistachios.

It was the moment of truth. I tasted them both.

Cannoli from BBQ Godfather (Not on the menu. Yet.)

Tony's cannolo was an impressively authentic rendition of the best cannoli you'd find in New York City. The shell was light, delicate, and delicious, with a savory flavor reminiscent of a pie crust. The filling was mild and delicate, with zings of sweetness from small chunks of dried fruits. No flavors overpowered the others. The salty pistachios added another layer of complexity. The overall experience was a balance of semi-savory flavors with only a hint of sweetness. This is a very sophisticated cannolo, one that any Manhattan white tablecloth restaurant would be proud to offer.

Cannoli from Pallotta's Italian Grill

Phil's rendition of this classic pastry was very different. Biting into it gave a burst of flavor; cinnamon, sweetness from the cream filling, a bit of chocolate, the bright flavor of the candied cherries. Phil's shells were as solid and substantial as Tony's were light and delicate; they delivered a satisfying crunch when you bit into them. This cannoli was very sweet, with big flavors. I could see lines around the corner if a street vendor in Brooklyn offered them to the public.

Declaring a winner was difficult. The competitors couldn't have been more different, reflecting the totally different styles of the men who created them. I really enjoyed them both, and would gladly order either one. But for me personally, the brash, in-your-face flavors of Phil's creation tempted me to take that one last bite, and for that, I have to declare Phil the winner in a very close contest.

If you find me at the bottom of Lake Woodlands tomorrow, have a very Merry Christmas.

Gino's East, the renowned Chicago pizzeria, is in the process of opening it's first location outside of Illinois. They ran into a big problem, and RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza, an established pizzeria located near the new restaurant, stepped in to save the day.

Gino's East was in the process of training the staff for the grand opening when their huge Hobart mixer died. Almost every pizzeria has a Hobart; it's used to mix the pizza dough, and without one, you're not going to make dough in commercial qualities. Repairs for these big machines are neither fast nor cheap, and Gino's East was facing days of downtime, jeopardizing the opening.

A broken Hobart Mixer

Phil Nicosia, owner of Pallotta's Italian Grill, describes what happened:

"They (Gino's East) were having issues with their dough mixer and RC let them come over to his place a borrow his and prep their dough in his place. He also set them up with local vendors and repair guys to help with the issues they had. I gotta say, that is pretty awesome of him! Whether he serves deep dish pizza or not, they are direct competition and he stepped up and helped them out of a huge bind. THAT'S what supporting local and being a good business person is all about! Hats off to RC!"

To us at HTownChowDown, this is a great example of the type of act the world needs to hear about.

RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza

RC's Pizza is the type of business that is a valuable member of the community; if you've not been lately, go enjoy a great NYC-style pizza and thank RC for doing what he does. They have locations in Kingwood and the Woodlands area.

Update: As of Dec 16, 2014, guests are reporting a two-hour wait for tables during the week. Combine that with 45 minutes to cook a deep-dish pizza, and you're not going to be eating in a hurry. Caveat diner.

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One of the culinary world's eternal battles is between the cities of New York and Chicago, and the topic is pizza. In one corner you have the svelte New York-style pizza, thin and flexible, topped only with sauce and cheese, and perhaps a meat or two. In the other corner is the burlier Chicago-style, a thin, pastry crust piled high with cheese, lots of toppings, and finished with a chunky tomato sauce. It's a classic battle, the scrappy wisecracking dancer vs the heavy, no-nonsense bruiser, both fighting for bragging rights and a place in your belly.

Residents of New York and Chicago will debate endlessly about which is better, with their home town version typically getting the nod. Those of us in other cities often make do with substandard versions of these regional favorites, in many cases showing little resemblance to the original. (Pizza chain "deep dish" pizza, I'm looking at you. No self-respecting Chicago deep dish would have a crust that's thicker than the toppings.)
In this epic battle, there are established combatants who have upheld each town's banner, often for decades. New York has Grimaldi's, Patsy's, Totonno's, Lombardi's, Di Fara, and other classic joints. Chicago favorites include Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, Uno, Pizano's, and Giordano's.
Here in the Woodlands, New York-style pizza has been well represented. Straight from Brooklyn comes an outpost of the Grimaldi's empire. RC's Pizza brings NYC cred due to RC Gallegos's decade in the pizza business in Brooklyn. And local favorite Brother's also serves pizza with a strong New York accent.
But Chicago-style pizza has been sadly missing from our community, and from the entire Houston area. Many years ago Pizzeria Uno opened a couple of stores in the Houston area, but they were disappointing, not coming close to the Chi-town originals.
But one of the big names in the Chicago pizza world has moved outside of Illinois, and their first location happens to be in Texas. Gino's East has opened in the Houston area, and the Woodlands is lucky enough to be the first stop. The brand new Woodlands store, located on I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Sawdust, will be the flagship of the Texas operation, also serving as a training base for future locations.

So how's the food?
We visited Gino's East as their guest at a friends and family preview, two days before the grand opening. As expected, they were still working out some kinks, but Gino's East has been operating since 1966, so they've got their processes down to a science. For the Woodlands location, they've installed six (!) classic Blodgett deck ovens, the gold standard for pizzerias around the world.

One big difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza is the volume. A hungry pizza lover can easily eat half of a large NY-style pizza, but a small Chicago-style deep dish feeds two people easily, and a large feeds 6 or 8.

So on our recent visit, we ordered a small deep-dish, and selected the Meaty Legend,

one of Gino's East's most celebrated pies, and one that we'd sampled years ago in Chicago.

The Meaty Legend has mountains of pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon, in addition to the thick layer of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and golden cornmeal crust.

These thick pizzas don't cook fast; our server estimated 45 minutes to an hour for it to cook. Since we ordered a small, it cooked a bit faster, but expect a wait when you order one of these pizzas made to order.

Ours appeared in about twenty minutes, and the server wrestled out a slice.

Biting into it, we were brought back to our last visit to Chicago. The generous portion of meats had a swanky, porky swagger; the spicy pepperoni and sausage offset by the milder Canadian bacon and smoky breakfast bacon. The rich mozzarella was smooth and melty, and the mild, chunky tomato sauce added a needed hit of acid to the rich toppings. The slightly crispy cornmeal crust brought a hint of sweetness to the mix, and the result was exactly how we remembered the Superior Street original; rich, flavorful, mild, balanced, and very tasty.
We also sampled a couple of starters from the surprisingly broad menu. Our favorite was the Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Bacon - roast Brussels sprouts seasoned with olive oil and garlic, topped with chunks of very thick bacon.
The dish was nicely earthy and tasty, with the slightly crunchy Brussels sprouts kicked up by the garlic and bacon. We couldn't help but want a little more seasoning; perhaps some kosher salt and cracked black pepper. But as presented, the dish was one we'd order again.
Gino's East is located in a building that has housed several different restaurant concepts over the years; the last was the unfortunate Bikini's brestaurant. But they've done a nice job of renovating the space, turning it into a warm, inviting setting.
Upon entering the building, you're greeted by a prominent bar, which looks to be a nice happy hour spot, or a great place for solo diners to enjoy a Chicago-style lunch or dinner.
We've been fans of Gino's East since we first sampled their pizza years ago in Chicago. We're excited to have an accurate version of this classic Chicago pizza joint in the Woodlands, and plan to return soon.
Gino's East | 25657 I-45, The Woodlands 77380 |

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