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.

Back when I lived in Austin, I dined frequently with my good friend Bruce, a talented amateur chef who was very knowledgable about the restaurant industry. He had one rule he always recommended when dining: Order what the restaurant is known for.

It's a rule that has served me well throughout the years. But sometimes, it's a rule that begs to be broken.
Recently, I was contacted by RC Gallegos, owner of RC's Pizza. RC is a native Texan who moved to Brooklyn and spent a decade there learning the pizza business, and who brought his knowledge and experience back to the Lone Star state. What I heard from him was not what I was expecting.
"I've got a new Italian beef sandwich. You need to come try it." 
RC's is one of my favorite pizza places, and serves a very credible NYC-style pizza; perhaps the most authentic in the entire Houston area. But Italian beef is a Chicago thing. What does a guy specializing in New York pizza know about Italian beef?
It was time to find out. It was a cool, sunny fall day in Texas, so the brief drive was a pleasant one. Entering RC's, we grabbed a table, and noticed a good lunch crowd chowing down on his excellent pizzas. It's tough to come into RC's and not order a pizza, but we did it this once. "RC is expecting us" we told the staff member, who whisked back into the kitchen.
In a few minutes the Italian Beef sandwich arrived. Whoa... this is a big sandwich, with lots of beef (probably half a pound), smothered in provolone and bell peppers (an unusual choice). The de rigueur giardinara was served in a small container on the side.

Italian Beef at RC's Pizza
Biting into the sandwich, our initial concern that RC had gone a bit crazy with the peppers was put aside; the flavors melded perfectly. The slightly sharp bite of the peppers offset the creaminess of the high quality provolone, and the thick slices of beef were perfectly tender and richly flavorful. The bread was chewy without becoming too much work, and had a toasty crunch. The chunks of veggies in the giardinara didn't want to stay put in the sandwich, so they became a tasty, tangy side; we dribbled a bit of the juice on the sandwich, adding another layer of complexity to the flavor.
All in all, the sandwich was a success. We suggested to RC that he chop the veggies, and he agreed. This is a sandwich I will be ordering again. Soon.
But RC had one more surprise up his sleeve.
"Have you tried my calamari?"
Over the years, we've had a lot of fried calamari at Italian restaurants, and it ranges from rubbery and forgettable to very good. RC won't serve food that doesn't impress him personally, so we were game to check it out. What appeared was nothing like what we were anticipating.
Fried Calamari at RC's Pizza
To say that this isn't traditional fried calamari is an understatement. Instead of the traditional breaded rings, we were served strips sliced from a calamari steak, hand-breaded and lightly fried. The batter was light and the texture of the meat was perfect - nowhere near rubbery, and evoking the flavor of the sea. 
The sauce was another surprise. RC has a very good house marinara, but he's paired his calamari with a Thai-style sweet chili sauce he makes; the combination of gentle heat and controlled sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly briny flavor of the fried calamari. 
While we certainly wouldn't recommend that you ignore the excellent New York-style pizza, the surprisingly good Italian beef and the very clever fried calamari cement RC's reputation as being considerably more than a place to order great pizza.
RC's NYC Pizza & Pasta | 501 Sawdust Road | The Woodlands, 77380 | 281-298-4663 |

RC'S NYC Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

A few days ago my phone rang. Caller unknown. I answered. "Lake Conroe. I know a guy out there. He makes great hero. Like in the old neighborhood" the caller said, in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. Then he hung up. Could this lead be worth following up? 
I've always been a fan of what I think of as Houston-style po boy sandwiches. A long, slightly crusty baguette filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and some sort of spread. The iconic version was created by Antone's, the late, lamented Houston chain of imported food shops. But Antone's sold out a long time ago; the family-owned locations now a memory, and the remaining franchised stores a sad shadow of what the original locations used to be. Worthy competitors like Andros' are gone, too. And while I enjoy the Louisiana-style seafood or roast beef po boys, they're a totally different sandwich.
A sunny Saturday morning found us cruising out to Highway 105, in the convertible with the top down, in search of this elusive deli. Almost to Montgomery, across from the entrance to April Sound in a small strip center, we noticed a sign that resembled the Italian flag. A quick left turn brought us to the parking lot for Tony's Deli, a charming little delicatessen that looks like it might belong on a side street in Brooklyn.

Stepping inside, we were immediately impressed by the busy yet cozy feel of the deli. Items were piled up, fresh food was on the counter for sale, and meats and cheeses were proudly displayed in the refrigerated case.
Craving a traditional Italian po boy, we browsed the menu. Sandwiches are named after prominent Italian-Americans: Sinatra, Pacino, Deniro, Danza, and many others were in attendance. We zeroed in on the Stallone, featuring capocolla, salami, ham, provolone and house made pesto. After a quick wait, it appeared.
This sandwich is substantial. Approximately a foot long, and stuffed with generous portions of the meats, cheeses, and veggies selected, slathered with a schmear of tart pesto. Biting into it was like a quick trip to NYC; the bread was chewy but not tough, and the meats had a bright, fresh flavor. (We later learned that Tony's uses Dietz & Watson meats exclusively, a decision we applaud.)
This, my friends, is a taste of Brooklyn in Montgomery county. A New York City Italian-style po boy from a small shop west of Conroe near the lake. How is this possible?
The answer is Tony Nicoletta, the transplanted New Yorker who could be straight from central casting for a Sopranos episode. But Nicoletta's business dealings are far more aboveboard. Born in Brooklyn, this ex-Marine attended culinary school in Hyde Park, and has owned a number of restaurants in the New York area. His years of experience are obvious in the food he hand crafts; this isn't a sandwich thrown together by a teenaged "sandwich artist" - it is the work of a chef whose chosen palette is the Italian po boy.
Tony Nicoletta is the real deal, and his sandwiches are both authentic and outstanding. We've often bemoaned the lack of good food near Lake Conroe, but we're happy to report that our new favorite Italian sandwich shop is open for business. Think you're gonna find a better Italian po boy anywhere near here?

As Tony would say, "Fuggedaboutit."

Yes sir. We'll be back. Often. 
Tony's Deli | 16283 Texas 105 | Montgomery, Texas | 507-743-0535

Tony’s Italian Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

We were recently out in Tomball and looking for something comfortable for dinner, and we weren't in the mood for Goodson's.  A quick scan through Yelp brought us to Gianna Italian Kitchen.

What a great neighborhood place.  Warm, inviting environment, even though it's nestled in a strip center.  Very friendly staff.  The kind of place where you're a regular on your second visit.

And there's excellent Italian food - nothing trendy, but the type of Italian-American cuisine that comes to mind when most folks think of Italian.  A superb Caesar salad, with a spicy dressing made with actual anchovies.  Delicious pastas, and a deft hand on the grill with meats.

Something we love:  Many of the dishes are available in either a full or an appetizer portion.  This lets kids (or those who aren't too hungry) dig deeper in the menu while not being stuck with a huge portion they won't finish.  More restaurants should consider doing this.

Gianna is exactly the type of Italian restaurant we'd love to have in the Woodlands.  But we'll be driving to Tomball regularly to enjoy it.

(Apologies for the lack of photos - it was dim in the restaurant, and none came out.)

Gianna Italian Kitchen - 28301 Hwy 249 - Tomball, Texas 77375
281-290-6676 -

Gianna Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

One of our ongoing quests is to find a good independent Italian restaurant in the Woodlands - a place that can be our "go to" spot when we're in the mood for something from Italy.

We heard rumors of a new authentic Italian place, but couldn't imagine where it could be.  Google Maps led us to the location, a nondescript strip center on I-45's northbound side, just north of Rayford/Sawdust.  We've passed this center a thousand times, and have never stopped in.

We turned in, and found Capri.  It's a small place, featuring pasta, pizza, "& more".  We entered, and were immediately taken by the charm of the small room.  A third of it is devoted to the open kitchen.  Not the artfully staged cooking theater found in some chains, but a real working kitchen out there in plain sight, a good sign of nothing to hide.  The rest of the room is nicely decorated with Italian art, and the overall feel is very homey - a thousand miles away from the slick corporate Italian spots that dominate the Woodlands.  The interior was fairly dark, which created a nice atmosphere; we certainly didn't feel like we were in a strip center.

We were seated, and the young waitress brought us menus.  A quick perusal revealed dishes that reflected a Tuscan slant to Italian cuisine, with a variety of pastas, meats, and vegetables.

The owner, Barbara Coglianese, appeared at our table, welcoming us.  When we showed interest in her restaurant and what she was doing, we got the whole story.  Barbara and her husband Maurizio moved to the States from Italy several years ago, and they opened this restaurant in January.  Maurizio travels in his business, and Barbara runs the place most of the time, with her family and a few dedicated staff members.  Barbara is a charming woman with a ready smile whose passion for cooking comes through when she talks about her food.  We put ourselves in her hands, and looked forward to what her kitchen would create.

My entree was pollo scaloppine with a light lemony sauce.  The chicken was pounded flat and very tender, and the sauce was smooth, slightly sweet and delightfully citrusy.  Served on the side was a wonderful zucchini dish; thinly sliced, delicately sauteed in olive oil, very simple but superb.

We also sampled gnocchi alfredo, with the small potato dumplings amidst a smooth, creamy, and lushly buttery alfredo sauce, dusted with some mild Parmesan cheese. The flavors melded very well, making for a satisfying dish.

The common theme through the dishes we sampled was a sense of handcrafted food, created with skill and pride.  None of the recipes were hugely elaborate, but the care that was taken shined through, and the result was outstanding.

Prices are very good - lunch entrees are under $10, and dinner is generally in the low teens.  Steaks are affordable (generally under $20) and kids meals are $4.

In the past, we have bemoaned the lack of a good independent Italian restaurant in the Woodlands.  We're very glad that Barbara and Maurizio have opened Capri, bringing authentic Italian food to an area served mainly by big chains.

Buon Appetito!

Capri Pasta Pizza & More
25602 IH-45 North
Suite 101
Spring, Texas 77386
(281) 298-0055

Capri on Urbanspoon

There's a notable new Italian place on the dining scene, and it's in an area of town that really needs more great restaurants.

La Baraonda is a great example of what a small restaurant can be when the front of the house and the back of the house are in sync. It's the antithesis of the soulless chain restaurant, a wonderful, family-owned establishment that's infused with the skill and attention of the proprietors.

Located in a strip center behind a Whataburger, the location is not one that says fine dining. But step inside, and your opinion changes instantly.

The lovely, jewel-like interior is divided into small areas for a more intimate feeling. The design is tasteful and restrained, beautiful fabrics, nice quality tableware, and an eye for detail complete a very good first impression. It's a great spot for a romantic dinner, or a quick lunch in a lovely setting.

And it lasts. Gus (one of the owners) took care of us on our recent visit, and was both professional and warm. A veteran of the Houston restaurant business, his expertise shows in thoughtful recommendations and an eye that anticipates a customer's needs.

And the food is outstanding. At Gus's recommendation, I tried the Chicken Marsala. The Marsala reduction was superb; clearly a very good quality wine was used, and the thyme and other flavors complemented the wine. Plenty of crimini mushrooms topped this delicious dish.

Everything is made in-house, from all the sauces to the excellent Italian sausage, rich with fennel. Notable is the delicious garlicky pesto that is served with the bread. It's even better with the superb garlic bread, made from pannini bread, fresh crushed garlic, and toasted in the pannini press.

Prices are very reasonable, and considering the quality of the cuisine, it's a genuine bargain.

The FM 1960 area has a new star for fine dining. If you've not tried La Baraonda, you're missing out. Make sure to tell Gus hello when you stop by.

Citing the weak economy, Houston restaurant icon Tony Vallone announced that he's put on hold his plan to open an Italian bistro and wine bar on West Gray.

"I'm going to wait until the economy gets better," said Vallone.

Tony Vallone is the restaurateur behind Tony's, the landmark Houston restaurant known both for its European cuisine and its famous patrons.

Vallone and his son Jeff were going to operate the restaurant together. Jeff currently operates Amici, the popular Italian spot located in Sugar Land's Town Center.

I love this new trend of serious restaurants opening up in the suburbs, and Sugarland benefits from this with Amici, the brainchild of Jeff Vallone and Bruce McMillian.

(For those who don't know the names, Jeff is the son of Tony Vallone, and Bruce was the Executive Chef at Tony's for many years. Both were instrumental in creating the Grotto.)

Amici is an example of how to do a restaurant right. First, the decor: It's a gorgeous space, with doors that open out on to the town square when the weather's nice. It's modern and elegant, but still manages to be inviting; it's not stuffy at all.

But the reason you come is the food. Jeff and Bruce know as much about Italian food as anyone in Texas, and it shows. The menu has wonderful balance -- traditional dishes like chicken parmigiana are there (and among the best in town) but the real magic lies with the more creative offerings, many of which you won't see anywhere else. The menu changes often, and the focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients is refreshing.

Little touches demonstrate the attention to detail: The bread basket has a variety of housemade breads, and they're delicious. A custom blended flavored iced tea is offered, and it's excellent.

Service is casual, friendly, and professional. And their recommendations are spot on.

We live in the Woodlands, but we make the trek down to Sugarland on a regular basis. It's worth it... at least until they open a Woodlands location.

Amici: 16089 City Walk, Town Square, Sugar Land, 77479, 281-242-2800

Tomball isn't normally viewed as a dining destination by foodies in the Houston area. But, our recent explorations there have shown us that this is going to change. From Tejas Chocolate's surprise appearance in Texas Monthly's Top 10 BBQ list, to reliable favorites like Gianna's Italian Kitchen and Mel's Country Cafe, Tomball has some very interesting food options that would appeal to anyone who enjoys good food.

UPDATE: Apparently, shortly after we published this review, the owners closed BonFire Grill. They have since reopened with a new chef.

Now, there's a new kid on the block to explore. BonFire Grill, located on Tomball's Main Street (aka FM 2920), is a newish establishment that has been drawing in both locals and those willing to make a drive to the quaint suburban town. BonFire has been enjoying great buzz in the Woodlands Area Foodies discussion group, and any place that this knowledgeable group raves about is worth investigating.

Finding BonFire grill is not an easy task. The sign is tiny. But your investigative skills will soon be rewarded.

The dining room at BonFire Grill in Tomball

Stepping inside, we were immediately taken with the warm, inviting setting. The vintage gas station has been converted into a cozy bistro. On our Thursday night visit, the dining room was packed; we snagged the one available table in the corner. The rustic dining room and connected open kitchen were bustling with energy and activity; this could be a hot new spot in Montrose if you didn't know you were in Tomball.

Perusing the tightly edited menu, we saw several items we wanted to try. We started with the simply named Mac & Cheese. What appeared was a revelation: A large crock of tender cavatappi pasta in a smooth, creamy, Vermont cheddar sauce, topped with a whisking of breadcrumbs and a sprinkle of parsley for color. This is an easy dish to prepare half-heartedly, but BonFire's version was outstanding.

Mac & Cheese at BonFire Grill in Tomball

Rich, creamy cheese, nicely al dente pasta, and the texture of the breadcrumbs made for a very satisfying start. We started devouring the dish, but had to put the brakes on... our main course was on the way.

We had struggled to choose between the enticing options on the regular menu and the specials board, but one item caught our eye. Actually, several items caught our eye, but we kept coming back to one dish that sounded intriguing and delicious.

The Specials Board at BonFire Grill in Tomball

We couldn't resist the Blackened Prime Rib Pizza, so we placed our order. After a reasonable wait, our pizza appeared, and the aroma was incredibly compelling. Pausing to photograph before digging in became a test of will; but we make sacrifices for our readers.

Before us was a medium-sized pizza with a nicely browned crust, topped with large strips of mid-rare prime rib. Atop the fresh housemade pizza sauce was a nice sprinkle of mozzarella, red onion, bell pepper, and a touch of cilantro. The crowning touch was a drizzle of au jus.

Blackened Prime Rib Pizza at BonFire Grill in Tomball

The interplay between the delicious pizza sauce and the phenomenally savory au jus was nothing short of magical; the beefy swagger was front and center, and the zing of the aromatic veggies was accompanied by a umami bomb from the au jus. This is one of the best pizzas we've tried in recent memory.

To say we were pleasantly surprised by BonFire Grill is an understatement. We walked in expecting a quiet, neighborhood pizza joint. We left feeling like insiders who knew a new secret, and that secret was one of the most exciting new restaurants in the Houston suburbs. Even if Tomball isn't a usual haunt of yours, you owe it to yourself to make the drive and check out the delicious cuisine at this hidden gem.

BonFire Grill | 425 West Main Street | Tomball | 281-844-7559

David Siegman, native Houstonian and long-time employee of the Vallone Restaurant Group, was named Managing Partner of Ciao Bello, the group's Tanglewood-area Italian trattoria.

Restaurant patrons know Siegman as the welcoming face of the restaurant, keeping tabs on the bustling dining room and working with his staff to insure that each guest's needs are met.

Siegman began working at VRG's flagship restaurant Tony's in 2009 after earning his bachelor's at UT Austin. He joined the Vallone team with four years restaurant experience.

"We always knew he'd be a great manager at Ciao Bello." says Tony Vallone, iconic Houston restaurateur and head of the Vallone Restaurant Group.


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