Tracing Austin's Italian Food Boom
How a red sauce town boiled over
In Austin, new types of cuisine tend to arrive in distinct waves, as if savvy restaurateurs all had the same great idea at once. Ramen, fusion tacos, or New American small plates all had their predictable moment, but our city's recent saturation of Italian restaurants was less expected, quickly changing the landscape for local diners. Yelp Austin's Italian category lists 99 restaurants that aren't chains or exclusively pizza places. 32 of them opened between 2014 and 2016, meaning nearly a third of our city's Italian restaurants have yet to make it out of their terrible twos.
Suddenly the city is crowded with pizzerias, trattorias, osterias. Name an -ia, we've got it. But what is it about Italian food that made Austin a prime place for primi piatti the past few years? We looked at how four Italian restaurants of different shapes and sauces make the scene.
The Family Business
At North Austin's Reale's Italian Cafe, only family members are allowed to make the sauce. Originally opened in 1980, shuttered in late '88, and reborn in '94, Reale's has served the Balcones neighborhood heaping portions of carbonara and seafood ala diavola since long before foodie became a buzzword. Through the years, the Reales have weathered hardships – from a fire that destroyed their home to the recent passing of the family matriarch – but the restaurant remains a neighborhood favorite. Their secret? Old-school family camaraderie.
"What makes us different is family. It's me, my dad, my brother Sal, my son Dominic, Giovanni, my sister – you can't go wrong with that," says Gino Reale, a 50-yearold military vet who took over management duties in the late Nineties after returning from service. When asked to reveal the secrets to their sauce, he reminds you in a thick Italian accent that he has an uncle who could break your legs. "Fuggetaboutit," he says without a hint of irony. "Stereotypes are there for a reason, because we are it."
For anyone who's grown up in the suburbs, the Reale's story should be familiar. It's a for-family, by-family affair. The strip mall location feels timeless, with white tablecloths and a kitschy Sistine Chapel ceiling mural. Local businesspeople crowd the tables at lunch, while each night's procession of families wait for booths as Gino's father Bob tells jokes. They include more F-words than Gino would like, but the four decades of loyal customers don't seem to mind.
When asked about their place in the Austin restaurant landscape, Gino seemed more concerned about national chains than chef-drien restaurants that emphasize freshly rolled pasta and house mozzarella. "Buffalo cheese? I love it, it's delicious, but I have no market for it here. I'd look like a trendy place and lose my tradition," he says. Sure, his "mutz-a-rel" is made in another state, but it's from a producer based in Jersey that's as authentic as they come.
That same approach applies to his other purveyors. Supporting Austin farms would mean abandoning a produce supplier that they've had a relationship with for over a decade. Supporting Texas ranchers would mean messing with the taste of their fennel sausage.
Reale's doesn't resist change completely, as evidenced by gluten-free pasta and pizza alternatives, but they do staunchly defend tradition. They're still focused on cooking great food, obsessed over grades of olive oil and the quality of their seafood, but the fundamental guiding factor is that this Italian food isn't as much an expression of flavor, but of family. That might not be enough to attract today's fickle foodies, but there will always be a market for neighborhood joints that focus on more than just what's served on the plate.
"For us, it's breaking bread. We don't cut bread at my house. We rip it. You break bread with people. The smell of that reminds me of my grandmother, my mother. Just that flavor, smell, warmth, comfort. It reminds you of family. That's the deal."
For years, Austinites complained about the lack of Italian options beyond red sauce mainstays like Reale's. But Vespaio was always the exception. Since 1998, the South Congress staple has been the city's standard-bearer of finer Italian dining and a trailblazer of practices now considered requisite at most Austin restaurants.
"I've been buying from Tecolote Farm for 12 years," says Ryan Sampson, executive chef since 2002. "Every farmers' market, I'd buy pretty much everything. Now in the past five years, everyone's advertising as local. It's a must."
To understand how Vespaio compares to its contemporaries, just look at their best-selling dishes. The most popular is the risotto of the day, the second their classic lasagna. Both are traditional comfort foods, but the first gives chefs the chance to flex some daily creativity and the second proves they can execute a classic. Neither sparks with the type of flashy language you'll find on hipper menus.
Just like at Reale's, the secret to Vespaio's food can't always be summed up in a tidy description, but for different reasons. "We've always been able to sell blood sausage here and head cheese and all that. We've never had a problem selling that. People who come here tend to be more adventurous," says Sampson. On my visit, Sampson brought me into the walk-in for a taste of their tomato conserva, a staggeringly rich concentrated alternative to tomato paste that they make out of thousands of pounds of Juliet tomatoes dried in their garden. It's a labor-intensive practice that Sampson doubts his peers replicate. The conserva goes into most tomato-based dishes, including the bolognese for the lasagna, whose secret ingredient Sampson is happy to share: prosciutto hocks.
The quality, consistency, and boundary-nudging has earned the restaurant a loyal following, but its longevity has been as much a gift as a curse. One of the owners bemoaned to me over the phone that it's one of those restaurants that critics love, but no one writes about anymore.
Although a 2013 Chronicle feature revisiting the restaurant cheekily declared that it still had some buzz left ("Vespaio" translates to "wasp's nest"), lately it's been edged out of several online publications' essential restaurant lists, and with the influx of novel new choices, the reliably great Italian institution has fallen off the heat map. But trend charting aside, Vespaio is still packed, as is Enoteca, the slightly more casual iteration they opened next door in 2005.
"I don't think of any of the other restaurants as competition," says Sampson. "We're just doing our thing."
The Neighborhood Haunt
It's impossible to talk about the growth of Austin's food scene without mentioning trailers. From Aaron Franklin to Bryce Gilmore, many of the city's notable chefs spent time cooking in close quarters. Italy has always been well-represented in that scene, with operations specializing in everything from ravioli to puccias. One of the biggest local success stories is Patrizi's.
Tucked into the Vortex theatre lot, Patrizi's serves a succinct menu of dishes that take inspiration from recipes used at owner Nic Patrizi's grandfather's restaurant in Beaumont. Standbys like sausage, meatballs, red sauce, and Italian dressing haven't changed, but the rest of the operation is very 2017. Fresh semolina pasta is rolled with local eggs, arugula comes from Boggy Creek Farm, and both the bacon and cheese are made in-house.
It's not unusual for trailers to flex their cooking chops, but few try so hard to emulate an actual restaurant experience. There are only two chefs, but a host walks diners through the menu like a typical server, and when a line builds up they hand out amuse-bouches, a practice unheard of in the trailer world. And once a month, Patrizi's hosts a prix fixe menu.
"We want to be viewed as a full-service style restaurant, but we're obviously not one," says Patrizi. "The goal of the restaurant is to sit down and stay here for two hours. Yell, laugh, talk with your hands, [the] proper Italian meal type of thing."
Opened in 2013, the restaurant preceded the current Italian wave, so Patrizi is quick to joke about others trying to copy his success. And he has plenty of other ideas about the influx of Italian contemporaries, noting, "There are so many new people showing up from out of town. If I were a restaurant owner and didn't know who my market was going to be in an area, you might go with some staples. And when you're pitching to an investor, saying 'We're going to do an Italian place' – that's easier for old rich white dudes to get behind."
You might find the occasional old rich white dude in line at Patrizi's, but with the Vortex hosting shows like an all-dog production of The Nutcracker, the crowd skews a little more alternative. It's not unusual for a tornado of children to play in the backyard as their cool dads sip Pearl Snaps. Once it gets later, a more typical hip Eastside crowd arrives, but the vibe is still neighborhoody.
There's something inherently homestyle about food that comes out of an Italian kitchen, no matter the level of culinary wizardry. "It's an honest food," says Patrizi. "Cacio e pepe. That's cheese, oil, pepper, pasta. Granted, it takes us longer to make those components than it takes to stew our red sauce," says Patrizi.
And the commitment to doing things the right way has proven popular enough that Patrizi's is now ready to graduate to a brick-and-mortar when the right property emerges. "I always wanted to create something that's an institution," says Patrizi. "If you can get pushed into an Austin staple, that's how restaurants become successful. You do that with great food, a great staff, hard work, and time."
You won't find Mom or Pop in the kitchen at Juniper. One of the standouts from the class of 2015, it has a sophisticated New Austin atmosphere and a contemporary northern Italian menu that fit founder/chef Nicholas Yanes' pedigree as former creative director at Hai Hospitality. "I'm not Italian," says Yanes. "But I'm also not French. I like to call myself a student of cuisines."
Juniper's food is thoughtfully conceived, thoroughly delicious, and steeped in tradition, but save for the $20 plate of spaghetti and meatballs on the bar menu, there isn't a simple red sauce in sight. It'd be easy for an average pasta eater to scan the menu and think that Yelp must have miscategorized this restaurant.
That's not to say they serve a molecular deconstruction of the chef's first memory of Spaghetti-Os. Alongside dishes like sunchoke gnocchi, there are easy-to-read proteins like New York strip. "We wanted people to be able to identify with the cuisine," says Yanes, "but we do get people who come in and say this isn't Italian food. We're Italian, but not necessarily 100 percent."
Haters might question the world's need for an Italian taco, but on the whole, Juniper takes a studious look at Italy's regional cuisine and considers how it fits into Texas' broader culinary landscape. They grill the porchetta over post oak, serve Gulf grouper in a smoked broth, and their must-order appetizer is a glorified tater tot. That puffed potato is a prime example of Juniper's creative swagger: It's a cross between a Roman and Parisian gnocchi that was fried because it just didn't boil quite right, and served with Parmesan and whipped dijon. It's something I could eat every day.
"We're in Texas, we're not in Italy. Three generations of grandmas aren't making these tortellinis. One young restaurant owner, who grew up outside of Houston, has a lot of experience in different kitchens, and a heart and affinity for Italian cuisine and culture, is in here doing it," says Yanes.
In that sense, Juniper isn't a restaurant that could've existed in Austin before the boom years of tasting menus and small plates. The restaurant takes lessons from the family-run red sauce joints, locavore trailblazers, and trailer success stories, dressed up in an elegant space. That lineage of evolution frees them up to take wild stabs at Italian food that would've seemed out of place before, like their brunch-only cast iron oxtail lasagna with a runny egg on top. It's a damn near perfect culmination of comfort foods that's Italian grandma-approved, requires serious culinary heavy-lifting, and served in a context that's undeniably 2017.
"If it's not really Italian, we ask, 'Is there anything that we can use to make it Italian?' An ingredient, a style, a situation, how we serve it," says Yanes. "That's what sets us apart. Let's just be a great restaurant, let's serve the best food we can make. We basically wanted to put the idea of a three Michelin star restaurant in a casual frame. That seems like something that couldn't happen in Austin five years ago."