The First Families of Houston Food: Why We Eat the Way We Eat in H-Town
Photo courtesy Ciao Bello Tony Vallone (right) in the Ciao Bello kitchen with chef Bobby Matos.
Many people know Tony Vallone for his eponymous Italian powerhouse, Tony's, as well as Ciao Bello and the new steakhouse, Vallone's. Fewer remember the Vallone Restaurant Group's Los Tonyos, Anthony's, La Griglia (still open, but no longer run by Vallone), Grotto and a previous incarnation of Vallone's.
Vallone started in the restaurant industry as a saucier, working his way through kitchens around Houston before finally opening his own restaurant, Tony's, in 1965. In 1972, Vallone moved his small Italian joint to a larger spot on Post Oak, and during the reconfiguration of the place the food switched from hearty Italian to fine dining.
In the '90s, Vallone opened Vallone's, a high-priced steakhouse, followed shortly thereafter by La Griglia and two Grottos locations. Eventually, Vallone's merged with Anthony's after the latter lost its lease. The hybrid concept never really took off, so the steakhouse closed in 2002. Los Tonyos was open for about a year before it was sold to the Serrano's Cafe Group (the same people who now own Ninfa's). And then, in 2004, Landry's bought La Griglia and both Grottos, leaving Vallone with only Tony's.
After some time spent making Tony's the best it could be, Vallone threw his hat into the ring again, opening Ciao Bello in 2009. The casual Italian restaurant wasn't an immediate hit, but it has grown into one of the best Italian eateries in town. Later there was the short-lived Caffe Bello, which never quite matched people's impressions of what a Tony Vallone restaurant should be.
Meanwhile, his son, Jeff, opened Amici in Sugar Land in 2007, but later closed that restaurant to focus on working with his father at Cafe Bello and Ciao Bello. He remains involved in Ciao Bello and Tony's.
In late 2013, Vallone opened Vallone's along with Scott Sulma, the general manager and partner, and Grant Gordon, the executive chef and another partner in the restaurant. It's not an exact replica of the original Vallone's, but it does attempt to recreate some of the atmosphere that made Vallone's enticing.
All of these families remain strong presences in Houston today, some of them after more than 100 years serving the community. And what's even more impressive is that these generations of cooks and restaurateurs have remained here in the Bayou City even after failures, losses and defeats, only to pick themselves up and start all over.
It's thanks to them that we have Tex-Mex, and crawfish and some of the best Italian cuisine in Texas. It's because of these culinary pioneers that we have such a diverse and lively food scene in a city that, for years, was recognized for little more than oil.
So next time you're in a Pappas restaurant or one of the Laurenzo family's places, take a minute to appreciate the history that led to this moment. And then, dig in.
[Editor's note: There are 264 McDonald's restaurants in the Houston area. This article originally stated that there are 25 McDonald's restaurants in Houston.]