Tony Vallone at his namesake Houston restaurant. (Photo by Jay Tovar)
Vallone imports his own olive oil, a staple in both the home kitchen and that of the restaurant.
The secret to the success of the Bucatini Amatriciana is the pork jowls.
Tony Vallone in his home kitchen where for 19 years he oversaw family birthdays and holiday dinners.
The over-sized kitchen is what sold the Vallone's on their home 19 years ago.
The kitchen opens to the family room combining cooking and socializing.
The pantry hall holds some of the Vallones' myriad china, glassware and pottery from Italy.
Donna & Tony Vallone in Tony's on Richmond in Greenway Plaza.
As Tony Vallone once joked, he and his wife, Donna, live at Tony’s, his revered eponymous restaurant, and sleep at Persa. That would be their luxe townhouse on the edge of River Oaks. No surprise then that when we asked for a visit in his kitchen, Vallone allowed that he doesn’t cook there very often.
But cooking runs in his blood just as a great marinara runs through Vallone’s favorite pasta dishes. So you can count on him in an apron on holidays and birthdays when 14 to 17 family members and friends gather around the center island in the vast kitchen.
When the couple opted to move back to terra firma after several years in a Huntingdon aerie, it was the kitchen that sold them. “For me it was all about the kitchen,” he says. “For Donna, I think it was all about the closets but also about the kitchen.”
It’s something of a true chef’s kitchen with an oversized island, a Viking range with six burners and grill, three ovens and immense storage. The butler’s pantry is amply stocked with the Vallones’ collection of European crystal stemware, formal china and gloriously painted plates and pottery from Italy. With a weak spot for great table settings, the Vallones must decide between six sets of china when entertaining.
When dinner is served at home, Vallone says. “It’s always a pasta dinner. We eat our pasta first, like in the old country. We follow it with proteins and vegetables. But pasta is king. It’s first.”
A Grandmother’s Influence
Raised by his Neapolitan grandmother, Vallone’s tradition of cooking began at her knee.
“She was a fabulous cook. She had the Neopolitan flare,” he says. “It wasn’t anything expensive because we came from a modest background. She was very particular about food. It could be done only one way. And everything she made, it might have been the poorest of foods, but she made it taste wonderful and it made you feel like a king.”
When asked to whip up a little something for our chat, Vallone prepared one of his favorite dishes, Bucatini Amatriciana. It’s basic and begins with bucatini pasta. If fresh tomatoes are not available, he uses canned San Marzano Italian tomatoes (other tomatoes have too much water, he says). The restaurateur/chef combines them with fresh basil, garlic, a dash of pepper, reggiano cheese (“the king of parmesan”), Vallone’s olive oil and the key ingredient guanciale (Italian bacon from pork jowls). With that you have a simply delicious meal.
When asked his favorite pasta dish, Vallone quips, “There’s not anything I don’t like,” adding that one of his favorites (and that of Donna) is Pasta Norma, a savory confection of tomato-based sauce, fried eggplant and ricotta. Another of his preferred pastas is linguini with clams.
Vallone’s exacting standards in the kitchen at home translate to Tony’s, where he raises the restaurant business to fine art and has earned a reputation as the master of fine dining in Houston.
“Food is really very simple,” he says. “There are only three steps to food really. First is product. Second is technique, knowing what to do with it. Third is serving it properly which is serving it when it’s ready, not sitting there all day. It goes right out of the pot to the table.
“That’s really all there is to food, backed up by a lot of passion and love. I mean, what else is there?”
(We were able to track down Tony Vallone in his home kitchen where he has cooked family meals for 19 years but will soon be leaving. The couple, with all children out of the house, are downsizing. Their Persa residence is on the market with Cathy Cagle of John Daugherty Realtors.)