“And this shall be a sign unto you…”
Actually, it’s only a sign, rising this morning above the traffic whirring by on I-45 in The Woodlands. But if it’s a sign, it’s also a chapter – the latest and arguably most exciting new chapter for a Houston dining legend, my longtime friend Aldo el Sharif.
Within a week or so, if all the permit gods are willing, the Houston area will have a brand-new Aldo’s – sixteen years after this chef opened and seven years after he closed one of the undisputed landmarks in local restaurant history.
Departing from his original Aldo’s Dining con Amore extravagance, the new Aldo’s Cucina Italiana is a restaurant suited for less extravagant times but more focused than ever on authentic culinary pleasures. To hear Chef Aldo tell it, his vision couldn’t be simpler: unmatched regional Italian cuisine, ranging from country rustic to city sophisticated, served with style in a comfortable and casual Italian setting, all for a price that’s a fraction of his Aldo’s image from the old lower Westheimer days. It’s all, he insists, about the Wow Factor.
“Wow! That’s what I want people to say when they finish eating, and especially when they finish paying the bill,” the chef says with a knowing grin and the familiar rumble of his Sicilian-meets-Egyptian accent. “I want people to be amazed at the value we can provide, because that’s what people want these days. They want an excellent meal, with terrific ambience and service, at a reasonable price. I am a reasonable man, and I don’t especially want to become a millionaire. In the end, really, the joy you give people by cooking for them has nothing to do with money.”
Today, my daughter Amanda and I joined Chef Aldo, his family and seemingly everybody doing any work on the restaurant for a “family meal” I’ll never forget. In case you didn’t know, “family meal” is what restaurants traditionally have instead of “employee meal” – and the words aren’t just a euphemism. Having Chef Aldo cook Kobe beef, two kinds of pasta (one with simple pomodoro and the other with calamari), grilled vegetables galore and a tossed salad, and getting to fill your plate with whatever parts of that you like, is a thrill few restaurant “customers” ever are lucky enough to have.
Aldo’s Cucina Italiana – the name simple and direct to help make the chef’s point – will open its doors serving dinner only, with plans to add weekday lunch and even Sunday brunch at a later date. Also helping with that mission is the menu’s price structure: appetizers averaging about $8, with most entrees ranging from $14 to $24 and sharing the plate with sides the Italians love to call contorni. There will be an additional menu of small bites, known as primi piatti or cicchetti, offered in the restaurant’s spacious bar. Though he reserves the right to create whatever he wants for the bar menu, Aldo seems certain of one thing: “We’re not talking chicken wings.”
The new Aldo’s Cucina Italiana will be licensed to serve signature cocktails, as well as beer and wine. In the wine department, always a point of pride (and price) at the old expense-account Aldo’s, modern realities will prevail. A full 50 percent of the bottles will fall in the $20-$40 range.
In a culinary career spanning four decades, Aldo has cooked not only in the United States, including New York City, before Houston, but Milan and other parts of Italy, Monte Carlo, Athens, Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, London and Cairo. With a father from Egypt and a mother from Sicily, Chef Aldo’s vision reaches back to the beginnings of Western civilization and, specifically, of Western cuisine.
Aldo’s Cucina Italiana is located at 18450 I-45 South in Shenandoah. The phone number is 936.447.9623, and the FAX is 936.447.9641.