Acclaimed Houston Restaurant Cafe Louie Evolves into Louie’s Italian American
Opening a new restaurant, especially an independently owned one, is extremely difficult. Chefs and restaurateurs have to deal with construction delays, permitting delays, local and state bureaucracies, developing and costing dishes, establishing relationships with suppliers and farmers, and hiring and training staff. And that’s before the doors even open. Once they do, they have to attract customers (hopefully repeat customers), maintain staff, cover costs and more — but maybe the most important thing they need to do is learn to adapt.
That’s what the siblings Angelo and Lucianna “Louie” Emiliani are doing at their acclaimed East Side restaurant, Cafe Louie, which opened in May at 3410 Harrisburg and was on track to being named one of the best new restaurants of 2022. There, the duo were transforming mundane classics such as the ham sandwich into minor works of art. However, according to Angelo in a press statement, “The all-day café concept just didn’t work after we rolled out our dinner service.”
Despite the unfortunate lack of traction, the duo aren’t giving up. Instead, the café is evolving into Louie’s Italian American, which will open Sunday, December 11.
Inspired by their Italian-American roots and the success of Cafe Louie’s Red Sauce Sundays, Louie and Angelo will now focus on elevated interpretations of the food of Italian immigrants in the United States. “Louie and I grew up with Italian-American cooking, and we launched Red Sauce Sundays at Cafe Louie to honor that tradition. Little did we know it would resonate so much with seemingly everyone, and we had to take a good look in the mirror when Sundays started to regularly outperform Saturday nights,” said Angelo in a press release.
The switch to an Italian focus isn’t all that surprising. Before returning to Houston, Angelo spent several years working with two-time James Beard award-winning chef Chris Bianco. His Phoenix-based Pizzeria Bianco is considered one of the best pizza joints in the country, and his white-tablecloth Italian restaurant Tratto is also highly acclaimed.
Bianco’s mentoring paid off. When Angelo returned to Houston during the pandemic, he launched the well regarded Angie’s Pizza pop-ups, which regularly sold out in minutes (a brick-and-mortar location is in the works). At Cafe Louie, the duo transformed Angelo’s Italian-restaurant expertise and Louie’s extensive experience at award-winning bakeries such as Tartine in San Francisco and Lodge Bread Company in Los Angeles, into stellar housemade pasta dishes, such as an amazing Garganelli Verdi With Wild Boar Ragu that was the highlight of a dinner I enjoyed in July.
Those housemade pastas will become the main focus of Louie’s Italian American. The tentative menu that was recently posted online features four: little rigatonis, tajarin (an egg-based, Piedmont-style pasta that is thinner than tagliatelle), tagliatelle and spinach ravioli. For each pasta, dinners can choose one of two different sauces, featuring locally sourced ingredients and tailored to that specific pasta. For example, the little rigatonis come with a choice of vodka sauce or meatballs and gravy, while the tajarin comes with either mushroom Marsala (with roasted Texas mushrooms) or alla vongole (white wine, clams, chili flake, parsley and lemon).
But before enjoying the pastas, guests can choose from a handful of appetizers, including radicchio salad with oranges, parsley fennel, shaved winer root vegetables and yuzu citronette; shrimp cocktail with verde cocktail sauce and lemon aioli; and Dry-Aged Metaballs.
Once you’ve finished your pasta, you can choose your second dish (secondi in Italian). Options include Redfish Picatta, classic chicken parmesan or vinegar chicken, roasted chicken legs and thighs in a sweet-and-sour vinegar sauce, roasted onions, breadcrumbs and herbs. There are also seasonal sides, such as roasted pumpkin with sage brown butter and teleggio funduta and seared cauliflower with roasted grapes, parsley and lemon.
To round out your meal, chef Louie will be creating desserts such as tiramisu, carrot bundt cake, and Meyer lemon posset, a cream, sugar and citrus custard-like dessert. In addition, Louie is also developing a cocktail program that will feature drinks such as Frozen Negroni, Aperol spritz and a house martini that incorporates passion fruit. In addition, Louie’s will be serving a limited beer selection, which will eventually expand, and a focused wine list that includes Edi Kante, Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli, Italy and Oddero, Dolcetto d’Alba from Piedmont, Italy.
As diners enter the reimagined, cozy, 65-seat restaurant adorned in floral wallpaper and vintage touches, such as hand-painted recipes and plates of angels making pizzas, they may be reminded of the movie “Big Night.” In that 1996 classic, Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub play two Italian brothers, Secondo and Primo, who open a regional Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Though the restaurant fails to attract customers, the brothers refuse to change their approach or work for the rival American-red sauce joint, Pascal’s. It’s a heart-wrenching movie about the costs of perfectionism and compromise.
Houston siblings Angelo and Louie have found another approach, applying their talent and exacting standards to classic Italian American dishes. As chef Primo says in the movie, “To eat good food is to be close to God.” If past is prelude, Angelo and Louie will have no problem transforming these Italian-American standards into not just good food but great food, providing diners a revelatory experience and, hopefully, success for the siblings.
Louie’s Italian American will be open Thursday through Monday from 5 to 10 p.m. Every Monday, there will be a 25% discount on all food items.