Sunday, March 27, 2022

From the Archives: The Stake Behind the Sizzle

From the archivesDriving 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 the years since, 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 (n.b. in 2011, after 40 years, it closed).

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.

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