Of all the things I figured I’d never write a column about, “red sauce joint” was at the top of the list. (Now, if we were talking about a place serving chicken-fried guinea pig, I’d be on it in a nanosecond.) Mind you, I like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next person, but in today’s trend-obsessed restaurant world, those beloved dishes are sadly passé. When “northern” Italian specialties like polenta, risotto, and pesto began to show up on Texas menus a couple of decades ago, hoary favorites like veal Marsala and linguine with clams went out of style faster than platform shoes and bell bottoms. But here it is 2016, and I’m getting ready to write about red sauce. Why? Because a certain chef is determined to brush the bread crumbs off some much-maligned dishes of yesteryear and restore them to their rightful place in the culinary firmament.
William Wright (below) is the young turk who last year partnered with Houston restaurateur-sommelier Evan Turner to develop the hit Greek restaurant Helen. For Turner, who had lived in Greece as a child, Helen was the fulfillment of a dream. But he wasn’t the only one with stars in his eyes. Wright, it turns out, has been besotted with Italian food ever since he studied at a cooking school outside Parma, in 2008. His infatuation blossomed when he worked at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Madia, in Sicily. Five years in New York stoked his love of all things Italian American. And this July, the 28-year-old’s own dream came true when he and Turner threw open the doors to their second Houston venture, Arthur Ave, whose name pays homage to the lusty restaurants on the best-known street in the Little Italy of the Bronx.
Sitting down in the narrow room, which was full and cacophonous at seven o’clock, our foursome immediately ordered focaccia. Heady with yeast from a slow, languorous rise, the bread was, as promised, exceptional. And beautiful. It looked as if an abstract expressionist had showered it with handfuls of glittery sea salt and bright-red semi-secco tomatoes.
Eager to get to the serious stuff, we gave far less attention than we should have to a novel salad of escarole with fresh green peas and chunky, blue-veined Gorgonzola dolce. But we were on a mission to check out what had already become one of Arthur Ave’s signatures: Sunday gravy. As Wright explained when he stopped by our table, Sunday gravy—a.k.a. Sunday sauce—is a well-established Italian-American way to use leftover meats. “You put them on to simmer in tomato sauce,” he said, “and when you get back from church, dinner is ready.” Soon enough, a platter of pork belly, short ribs, Italian sausage, and meatballs arrived under a blanket of a deep dark-red sauce that was a distillation of San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. But though it married beautifully with both the sausage and the meatballs, the long cooking time had not been kind to some of the other cuts, which sat there, dry and listless, while we felt guilty for not cleaning our plates.
That same split-personality disorder afflicted the second protein we tried, a tragically overcooked piece of sea bream that was happily redeemed by an absolutely ravishing caponata. Wright had given vinegar-marinated golden raisins a starring role in his Sicilian version, transforming what can be a ho-hum combo of eggplant, onion, and celery into a punchy sweet-and-sour relish.
Because we were now truly on the verge of exploding, the four of us shared the Sophia Loren of desserts, tiramisu. A shower of grated bittersweet chocolate cut the richness a bit, but the whipped mascarpone cream and espresso-soaked ladyfingers achieved the dish’s inevitable result, a sugar high that made us wonder if we should call Uber for a ride home.
It’s easy to overeat at Arthur Ave, so a friend and I kept it simple at lunch the next day. I liked the quieter daytime mood, and it was nice to sit and talk at the bar. The space, by Helen designer Erin Hicks, eschews Chianti-bottle kitsch in favor of dark woods, mirrors, and curvaceous iron chandeliers. I ordered an improved version of America’s favorite pizza, pepperoni, which had a puffy-edged, well-blistered crust and a quartet of molten cheeses cradling fine-textured pepperoni and splashes of green pesto. But the real revelation was my friend’s choice, a simple Mortadella sandwich. It’s true that anything would have been great on Arthur Ave’s focaccia, but the genius touch was a sort of mayonnaise made by whipping ricotta with sea salt and crazy amounts of fruity Sicilian olive oil.
A second dinnertime visit a couple of weeks later turned into a walk down memory lane, with takes on dishes I remember from Texas’s Italian restaurants of thirty years ago. Upholding the tradition of stupefying amounts of butter, cream, and Parmesan, the Alfredo sauce was lighter but still close to the classic; a sprinkle of lemon zest gave it a lift, and more would have been even better. By contrast, the tender house-made gnocchi verde dumplings, lolling about in pesto under broad blond shavings of Grana Padano, were state-of-the-art. It was the lasagna, though, that made the biggest impression. Northern in style, each handkerchief-size “noodle” was layered with a four-meat Bolognese sauce and great dollops of creamy ricotta béchamel. Since we had started with pasta, we decided to end with a close relative: cannoli. Usually leery of this stodgy confection, which is often indistinguishable from PVC pipe filled with library paste, I was delighted to be proved wrong when our waiter appeared bearing fragile cornucopia-shaped pastry shells overflowing with sweetened ricotta under a hail of pistachios and candied orange peel.
I had walked into Arthur Ave thinking the point was to give red sauce the respect it deserves, and it does do that. But I left feeling that it’s a retrospective in the evolving Italian restaurant scene. Over the years, crushes on one city or region after another, often at the same time. Wright has decided that it’s high time for the different versions to cohabit. Here you can get it all.
Arthur Ave: 1111 Studewood, Houston (832-582-7146). L Mon–Sat. D 7 days. $$$
Opened: July 29, 2016