Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Stake Behind the Sizzle

Driving along the scuttled roads of urban Austin, I finally found a parking place, after 10 minutes of searching. By some twist of fate, I managed to find a place in front of a building that once sheltered one of the most wonderful Italian spots in Texas. It was long gone now, replaced by serial restaurateurs with cash and concepts. The place was called Speranza’s, run by a young couple, Michael and Hallie Speranza, and it was a Mecca for anyone trying to show offbeat Italian wines in those days. The era was the early 1980’s and in those 25 years or so, many places have come and gone, and come again, professing to hold high the banner for all things Italian.

Austin is a place that defies categorization. So I won’t. But I am not sure the place is ready for the real deal, this time again. Italy isn't a fashion, not a flash-in-a-pan kind of thing.

Back to Speranza’s. Hallie was in the kitchen, and Michael would guard the door for interlopers. I remember him once telling me that people would come in looking for spaghetti and meatballs, or lasagna, and he would escort them out the door and show them to the nearby Spaghetti Warehouse, send them on their merry way. Speranza’s wasn’t a spaghetti and meatballs kind of place. Though if you wanted a really authentic Bolognese, you hit the jackpot.

Wine wise, we would bring in Dolcetto’s and Nebbiolo’s, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo’s and Tocai’s and they would be welcomed into this crazy little vortex of tipicita’. For a few brief moments, you were in a little trattoria in the Langhe or of some little side road in the Chianti zone. And then it went away. The Speranza’s shuttered their wonderful gem of a restaurant. It was like a death of a friend.

These days Hallie has rekindled her love for things Italian by offering to cater for private parties. And here we have the crux of the dilemma. Why does something as wonderful as the real Italian thing have to resurface on the side street of an emerging culture? Is it that the culture of Austin is so dominating there isn’t room for another “real” experience? Is the importance and coolness of Austin so restrictive that there isn’t any air in the room for poor little Italian culture to breathe? Is the heat from a Neapolitan kitchen just a little too hot for the cool culture? I find that really hard to believe.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful experiences that have sprung up. There is the casual and laid back Asti, which is always fun to see the convergence of things Italian in the spirit of Austin. There is Siena, which is this lifelike reproduction of an Italian castello, complete with the smells of the open hearth. And there is Vespaio, with its frenetic, Italian-with-a-nod-to-Nice fare. Good times. And there is Damian Mandola’s Trattoria Lisina in Driftwood, which gets so close you can almost smell it. But the real deal, without compromise, hasn’t been back since the Speranza’s shut the door on their little place.

I was talking with my Italian friend Daniela, a wonderful lady from Naples, who runs an Italian-styled place in Austin. I believe if she had the proper finances behind her, she would bring not only la cucina Italiana, but even better, la cucina povera, from the alleys and backstreets of Naples and Pozzuoli. That would be a dream worth hatching. With all respect to the hipness of Austin, to bring the ancient soul of Naples to the streets of Austin, complete with the proper, unspoofulated wines of Campania; a full-out love-fest from the Mezzagiorno.

I’m not talking about some Dellionaire who has a place in Tuscany and wants to impress their friends back in Austin with their manipulation of millions to appear to be Italian. I’m talking sweat, warts, octopus, Margherita pizza without Parmigiano, real, real, real. No compromises.

The Spaghetti Warehouse that Michael Speranza used to shuttle wayward clients off to is still there. OK, fine.

But for one moment, to just dream of gnocchi like Aunt Jena makes, to have an insalata di mare like one can only hope to find in Naples, or Ischia, or Mondello, or Austin? That is madness beyond anything imaginable, no?

Or maybe Austin will be remembered for its shrines to Tacos and Tex-Mex, and Bar-B-Que beyond belief, maybe that is really the channel for this lifestyle center. I’m OK with that, too.

But what if we could give someone like Daniela the means to fly her kite high and bring to Austin the thousands of years of embedded love and lust and sweat and inspiration from Campania? Would that this were also a sweet dream of someone out there reading this, with a few extra dollars and would love to see, with those of us who know it is possible.

Then maybe we could feel the heat from an authentic Southern Italian sizzle.


Tracie P. said...

you're right, ace, italy is not a fashion. there are a couple of problems at work here. first, too many people think they have to be "in the mood" for italian food, as if la cucina italiana were strictly definable by tomato sauce and cheese. italian food is everything; styles differing from north to south, region to region, town to town, and neighborhood to neighborhood, all interpreted with the common thread of purity and simplicity; unfussy.

so getting people to broaden their paradigm is the first barrier to overcome. and when they go to these upscale restaurants which offer more than tomatoes and cheese, customers expect something fancy to match the price tag on that $25 plate of pasta.

again, authenticity, while not set aside completely, is not the priority.

second, tomatoes and cheese restaurants are affordable; those closer to the real deal are cost prohibitive for the mass population. 15 dollars for aglio olio? puh-lease.

i think we need to stop analyzing whether or not austin is "ready." someone is going to have to grow some palle and open the new mecca. austin likes to revel in its self-congratulatory cool, but when it comes to the restaurant scene (esp italian), the city falls short.

the solution is education. we want that restaurant...we love italy...we want affordable, unfussy authenticy. hopefully someone will hear you ace! 'til then, my kitchen is always open.

Marco said...

I only hear of the heat that Austin has been buzzing for a while. In America Norte, this is the kiss of death. I do not want to take anything away from Austin and its people. Maybe a stake in the heart of monoculture a la IBM would help. Interesting that big blue should locate in the reddest city of the state.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Grazie, ragazza

Unknown said...

AC... feast at Alighiero in Anghiari, on V. Garibaldi, tucked into the side of the wall to the old city.

You'll find your mind there, in spades.

Alfonso Cevola said...


yes they do! sound pickers and taco flickers! Veni qua, ragazzo

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks, ya doin?

Suzanne said...

I remember it well and fondly and have missed it on many occasions while hunting and wishing for an authentic fine-dining establishment without all the glitz and smarminess of the new spots.

My best to Hallie and Michael. I hope they are cooking and eating and serving discriminating and deserving and appreciative clients somewhere. I'd love to be one of them again!

Ol' Pappy said...

I washed lettuce, dishes and dodged hot pans tossed by Michael in the Kitchen of that little Brake Shop at 4th Street and Colorado. Thirty years later and those are some of the most important lessons of my life. Been plying the restaurant trade from Manhattan for 23 years and have never, ever seen anything that Hallie and Mike didn't show us together.

Ah, Youth....


Tom Maresca said...

Ah, Alfonso, you struck a nerve with this post. There are hundreds of Italian restaurants here in NYC, but a truly authentic one -- especially a really authentic Neapolitan restaurant -- that just does not exist. I cannot tell you how strongly I wish it did.

Tom Maresca

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Tom.

you could only imagine how one feels this far from NY and Italy.

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