Food Arts presents its October 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Tony Vallone fast-on-the-crowd-draw Lone Star restaurateur.
Tony's founded in 1965, is often described as the '21' club of Houston because everybody who's anybody in Houston eats at Tony's.
In fact, everybody who's anybody in the whole world eats at Tony's if they happen to be passing through town. President George Bush is a regular, as is former Secretary of State Jim Baker. The late Texas Governor John Connally was a loyal customer. President Nixon came in when he was in Houston. Secret service agents are a fixture, the staff knows them by name.
Tony's is a legend and, as such it begets legendary stories. For 20 years, Vallone has been denying that he once refused to serve Frank Sinatra because he wasn't dressed properly. "No one is going to turn away Frank Sinatra," Vallone says. "His driver asked for some food to go. I went out to the car and asked him to come in. He was wearing golf clothes and cleats. He said 'I'm not dressed. I'm sweaty.' That's all there was to it. but the next day the headlines were that I turned him down. The more I denied it, the more they wrote about it, and it made everyone clamor to get in."
It is true, however, that an irate wife had her two-timing husband's Rolls-Royce towed from the parking lot while he was dining with his mistress and that Tony's ledgers are subpoenaed in big divorce cases.
Vallone, however did not grow up with movers and shakers or big oil money. Born in Houston to Italian immigrant parents, he's a self-made man. He learnt to cook at the knee of his grandmother, who cooked for two restaurants and catered-all from her home kitchen. His career choice was also inspired by an uncle and a cousin, chefs from Sorrento, who made life in the kitchen sound exciting. So early on, Vallone started working in restaurants and eventually opened his own "little hole in the wall. When the roof leaked, I ran out with wine buckets collecting the water."
After Houston Chronicle society columnist Maxine Mesinger began to dine chez Tony, the bold-faced names followed. In 1972, Vallone moved Tony's to Houston's fashionable Galleria section, upgraded his menu and wine list (Tony's is a Wine Spectator Award for Excellence winner) and, when socialite Lynn Wyatt gave a dinner party for Princess Margaret in the wine cellar, Vallone became the darling of the dining set. He then had to develop the skills of a diplomat. "You have to learn politics, know who's suing who and who's divorcing who. You have to be careful not to seat an ex-wife next to a present wife. But none of that is as important as what's on the plate," Vallone says. He views the quality of the menu as he key to his success. He works closely with his chef of nine years, Mark Cox, He maintains an extensive menu with 30 some entrees, flies in fresh seafood from all over the world, offers game and has everything first as it comes into season, whether it's soft shell crabs, shad roe or white truffles.
Vallone hung in during Houston's economic slump and was rewarded. "Texas icons crumbled," he recalls. "We got hurt. We cut down on staff and on prices. But house accounts were kept open and everybody we helped has paid off. And now the economy is good again."
Vallone currently owns four other restaurants in the Houston area—two Grottos, Anthony's and La Griglia. But his family, he says, is the proudest achievement. His oldest sons, Jeff, 28, and Joey, 22, operate Grottos and La Griglia. His daughter Laura, 21, works in the office. He has another son, John, 18, in college and an eight-year-old daughter, Lia. He already has two grandchildren, and the six-year-old likes helping in the kitchen. Vallone's legacy, it seems, is well assured.