On the Hunt for Chicken Parmigiana in Central Texas
Five local spots (and one in San Antonio) to feed your East Coast craving
By Danny Palumbo,
8:00AM, Thu. Feb. 28, 2019
Once, a chef got upset with me for strategically garnishing a dish. “Just let it land on the plate,” he said. I was trying too hard, and it showed: My food looked fussy, constrained, and planned. It’s hard work to make things seem natural, and when it comes to Italian food in Austin, things can feel, well, mechanical.
The long list of new spots (often a result of restaurant-group overlords) specialize in spiced-up standard-issue fare “with a twist!” and dining rooms that look like IKEA’s “modern restaurant” floor model. They masquerade as down-to-earth, family-owned establishments – decorated with checkered tablecloths and that one famous mugshot of Frank Sinatra – but deep down, they’re the creation of some barely inspired visionary who went to school for hospitality and doesn’t eat carbs. Sure, it’s a huge challenge to recreate the type of Italian restaurants you’d see in New York or Chicago or the Italian district in St. Louis. And sure, there are plenty of great local chefs serving amazing, inspired Italian food – but what about when you crave a down-and-dirty chicken parmigiana from back home?
Is one forced to retreat to the neon Olive Garden sign or the set piece-looking dining room of Maggiano’s? The chicken parm, simple and impervious to culinary elevation, must exist outside of the clutches of Darden (or any multibrand restaurant operators for that matter). In the search for Italian-American earnestness, what I was really searching for was a place that does a good chicken parm. Here are a few of my findings to satisfy those East Coast/Midwest cravings until the airfare drops.
Gino’s Vino does a lot of things right with their homemade pasta and tangy pomodoro. My only critique is that they don’t quite melt the cheese enough on the parmigiana. Still, it’s a quality parm. Also, it’s a requirement that the website for an Italian restaurant be at least a little bit hammy, and Gino’s doesn’t disappoint with several pictures of the Rat Pack in their header. Bonus: They have a resident Marilyn Monroe impersonator on the live entertainment schedule.
Reale’s nails the ambiance of a fun, Italian-American restaurant. I went there with three comedian friends and felt totally fine talking 20% more obnoxiously than usual. Also, there’s a Frank Sinatra impersonator who will regale you with stories of Ol’ Blue Eyes even though it’s highly doubtful he ever met him. The parm at Reale’s has some obvious missteps (the pasta is topped, not tossed, with sauce), but I really like what this place has to offer experiencewise.
Juliet does a veal parmigiana that’s on the pricier side ($22), but it delivers. Interestingly enough, the menu was revamped from a modern interpretation of Italian food to a more classic, Italian-American one. Big props to this place for recognizing what people want and giving it to them. Everything is made from scratch, and this parm has the best flavor and execution so far. This restaurant is worth supporting.
OK, so, this restaurant is in San Antonio, but look – Capparelli’s is a Texas treasure and you’re only an hour away. If you find yourself in San Antonio visiting your ex’s parents (that’s the only thing I’ve ever done there), you have to go to Capparelli’s. If a restaurant’s website immediately hits you with the Godfather soundtrack, it’s a sure-fire sign you’re going to be eating quality Italian-American food. It’s affordable, done well, and most importantly, it’s approachable.
Enoteca reminds me of the little 30-seat bistros you see on the East Coast, the type of place that’s open until midnight but lets you stay and drink until 2am. That’s certainly not the case here (they close at 10pm), but this is still a great place to shoot out the door to at 9pm, high as hell and craving a chicken parm. Enoteca does a welcome variation of the parmigiana by switching out a classic red sauce for the spicier arrabbiata. The side pasta is also aglio e olio (garlic and oil) instead of just more marinara. Don’t sleep on Enoteca.
On paper, Mandola’s seems like the type of place you’d think I, a presumed food snob, would hate. But it scores major points for a few reasons. Number one: It’s a Texas chain, which I love. Number two: Mandola’s knows exactly the type of restaurant that it is. This is the type of place where you can get a chicken parm and a side of Italian-American (sorry, Rome) fettuccine alfredo for $14. There’s also a kids’ menu that serves trenette and butter. (Pasta with butter is the gateway for all young children to discover Italian food; it’s where we all develop those carb-heavy comfort food memories.) Mandola’s is true to the type of Italian-American, family-friendly restaurants that I grew up with.