In our excited rush to try the buzzy new restaurants that seem to open every week in Houston, we sometimes forget about some of the city’s culinary institutions — the restaurants that have endured through decades of booms and busts. These restaurants are as much a part of Houston’s culinary landscape as those appearing on the “top ten must try now” lists. We’re going to visit some of these long-lived restaurants (the only criteria being that they must have been in business at least 35 years, and not be a chain), to see what the secret to their longevity is.
First up is Antonio’s Italian Restaurant and Flying Pizza.
Housed in a modest building at 2920 Hillcroft, this restaurant has been in business since 1971.
Stepping inside is about as close to time travel as I am ever likely to come. The spotless restaurant has a retro charm, filled with polished wood, wrought iron, hanging baskets of silk plants, and cheery tablecloths. Very 1970s.
After placing our orders, warm crusty bread arrived, complete with foil-wrapped butter pats.
We started with an order of stuffed mushrooms. I used to make these back in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven’t had them in years. Meaty, piping hot, and with a crunchy herbed topping, they were as good as I remember. I made a mental note to make stuffed mushrooms at home soon.
My husband ordered the Veal Cacciatore. Although it was not quite what he expected (he was thinking it would be a veal cutlet), it was an interesting dish with tender strips of veal, and a lot of flavor from kalamata olives, onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
I ordered the Eggplant Parmigiana, because our waiter told me it was the best in Houston, which is pretty much a throwdown. It’s hard for me to ever declare something “the best,” but this was really good. The eggplant was thankfully not breaded and fried before being covered in sauce and cheese. Instead, it was baked or sauteed (not sure which), and then layered, which allowed the flavor and texture of the eggplant to come through without the breading that so often ends up being gummy. (I didn’t miss the calories from the fried breading either.)
Both of our entrees were generously sized (enough left over for lunch the next day). The sauces were not too sweet — one of our biggest complaints with some of the Italian chain restaurants. I liked that on each table there was salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and grated parmesan cheese, to use as you desired — that’s something you hardly see any more. Is it just me, or does anyone else hate having the waiter come over with a yard-long pepper mill or a bowl of grated cheese and ask if you want any? And forget about asking for salt!
So what is the secret to Antonio’s longevity? This was Italian comfort food — tasty, unpretentious, with a definite “made from scratch” quality. It was not cheap, although I believe the prices were fair. Sitting there among the silk plants, enjoying our meal with a good bottle of wine, it was a relaxed evening. It’s a perfect place to take a family, and we look forward to returning with the kids for some “flying pizza.”