The original Reginelli’s opened in the Uptown section of New Orleans in 1996, just about a pizza’s throw from the soaring turquoise culinary icon known as Commander’s Palace. Over the years, the Reginellis of, well, Reginelli’s and the Brennans of Commanders Palace must have gotten to know one another, since today when they open their first pizzeria outside of Louisiana, it’s as a partnership. At last night’s practice-makes-perfect soft opening, Alex Brennan-Martin of Brennan’s of Houston, Ti Adelaide Martin of Commander’s and Darryl Reginelli of YouKnowWhat were on hand to greet whoever wandered in. I was one of those who wandered in.
At first blush, a family-friendly pizza place might seem an odd choice for the Brennans, a legendary restaurant family best known for fine dining, not only with variations on same in New Orleans but in other major tourism cities as well. Family matriach Ella Brennan taught the entire gang to think big, beginning when she helped open Brennan’s of Houston three-plus decades ago. But considering the long-forming “casualization” trend in all dining, joining forces with a successful New Orleans-based brand (seven pizza-happy eateries there, plus two more in Baton Rouge) makes all the sense in the world.
“I’ll put it to you in one word,” says Alex Brennan-Martin, when asked about all the kids making themselves at home on soft-opening night. “Pizza.” Indeed. even though I greatly enjoyed the hot-melty version of the New Orleans muffaletta pictured at the very top, pizza is clearly the big deal at Reginelli’s. Different tables had many different things, but EVERY table had a pizza. The crusts are medium-thick (or is that medium-thin?) and happily packed with salty-earthy flavor. Toppings range from eleven combinations with catchy names to the dozens or probably hundreds of possible mixtures listed as ingredients under Custom Pizzas. The one pictured here is the Classic Combo.
The thing is, great Italian-American food is seldom light. And neither is great New Orleans food, especially by the time the Brennans get through with it. Thus you end up with wonders like this lush and soul-satisfying spinach and artichoke dip – the kind of thing everybody’s Aunt Lucy brings to parties in New Orleans, except way better. This dip has the nerve to be topped with melted mozzarella – Reginelli’s is a pizzeria, after all - and shows up with toasted foccacia crostini for the dipping or spooning or full-immersion baptism. It’s up to you.
As a card-carrying Maker of Good Hummus myself, I seldom find hummus I like better than mine made with chick peas, caramelized onion, tomato, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice; but Reginelli’s might be serving such a thing. They call it Tuscan Hummus, as good a name as any since they puree the chick peas Italians know as ceci along with Tuscan white beans (cannellini?) into a dip that’s amazing. In return for paying $1 more, you can get your hummus “dressed” (a joke: like a po-boy in New Orleans, get it?), and that brings on feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and calamata olives. Now that’s $1 very well spent!
If, for some crazy reason, you’re looking to have “just a salad” at Reginelli’s, there are several that are trying hard to be your entree: chicken salad, deli salad, etc. But my favorite so far is indeed “just a salad,” except that it’s terrific. Reginelli’s version of the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil Caprese (ca-PRAY-zay, please, meaning in the style of Capri) is all that and more, given a punch in your mouth by the inclusion of richly layered “balsamic basil oil.”
Like many restaurants that have the whole pizza thing going on, Reginelli’s is able to spin off ingredients and equipment into a host of other dishes. There are foccacia sandwiches (such as the muffaletta, amicably divorced from the original round Sicilian loaf that gave the sandwich its name), and there are “pita press sandwiches,” resembling Italian panini that just got back from a tour of the eastern Mediterranean and/or Middle East. I was most excited, though, to sample the pizza-inside-out calzone. This is the Petie’s Special, with crumbled meatballs, marinara, mozzarella and ricotta. It’s true what you’ve heard: I’ve never met a meatball I didn’t like.
Reginelli’s doesn’t serve the kind of food that leaves you with “room for dessert,” but then again, neither does Commander’s Palace, Mr. B’s Bistro or our own Brennan’s of Houston. We simply order dessert anyway and figure out where to put it, usually in close proximity to our hips. I sampled the strawberry cheesecake but was even more impressed with what seem to be tiramisu balls, or maybe (to sound better) tiramisu scoops. All the components of the classic “pick me up” are in attendance, just turned a little upside down. You’ll want to try this!
And finally… a word about wine at the new Reginelli’s, located on Kingsride just off Gessner near the Memorial City Mall (with more locations surely to come). All the wines are cleverly listed on two sides of a wine bottle, as you can see. All were picked by the wine director at Commander’s Palace. And all fit into the affordable frame of $19 to $31, nearly all bottle prices starting with a 2. I think the Brennans were the first people who ever told me that if you reduce your markup on wine, tables will regularly order a second bottle. Good advice for my life, way back then in New Orleans. Good advice for today in Houston, especially at the new Reginelli’s.