Zinnante's a breath of fresh air amid stuffy corporate takeovers

Cheap Eat$

Brenda Tavakoli

Sometimes it seems as if everything, especially restaurants, goes corporate as soon as a chance arises. Even the ubiquitous Starbucks was originally just a one-location Seattle coffee shop. Now the chain has 1200-plus locations.

The American dream made reality? Perhaps, but along with the achievement of such dreams, much of the charm and personality that made restaurants special in the first place is either diluted or disintegrates altogether.

Case in point: A recent heartbreaker was a glowing Chronicle article describing how Houston-based Antone's sandwich shops were going corporate, expanding outside of the city and boasting slick new shops that focus on fast service. Sorry, but my memories of Antone's don't involve picking up a sandwich and dashing off in my Mercedes while yakking on a cell phone as my pager proceeded to blow up.

My memories involve visiting the shop after a trip to the zoo with my parents, chowing down on the meticulously-prepared sandwiches, meandering around the shop, looking at the exotic foods and taking in the pungent smell that reminded me of trips overseas. In other words, charm, character and a novel ambiance.

My recent discovery of Zinnante's Delicatessen has put my wounded heart on the mend. I can't mourn for Antone's too much when a quintessential mom-and-pop deli with excellent fare exists well within my reach.

This family-owned operation has been on the map since 1972, according to owner Peter Zinnante. He carried on the family business his father started and finds it "a lot of fun."

The friend who introduced me to Zinnante's raves, "I go there all the time. That sandwich I eat there is unstoppable."

That sandwich, the club, comes with ham, turkey, lettuce and tomato on toast and will cost you $5.17. If a five-dollar sandwich seems a bit expensive, bear in mind that Zinnantes does not skimp on ingredients.

My brief foray into the Zinnantes menu was seriously delicious, prompting me to declare the Zia Mia ($6.00) "a damn good sandwich."

With it you get your choice of turkey, roast beef, sausage or meatballs grilled with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes. I opted for turkey. The bread, a white, hoagie-style variety, boasted a fluffy texture and a fresh taste. The turkey and vegetables melded into a symphony of flavors and textures so tasty I had to finish the whole substantially-portioned sandwich.

Those with more traditional tastes can opt for sandwiches like grilled cheese ($3.00), turkey, ham, chicken salad (all $3.79) or the $2.77 burger.

Yet Zinnantes offers much more than sandwiches. "You can get just about anything in the world you want to eat here. There's not a lot of places that have 60-70 things on the menu. We have 12 pasta dishes; about 32 different sandwiches, desserts and (several) salads," Zinnante explains.

And that's not all. This deli caters quite a lot. "A lot of food comes out of this little hole," says Zinnante.

Past gigs include pre-Drayton McLane Astros games, a booth at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and assorted special occasions. Zinnante welcomes clients looking for food, including boiled crawfish, for fund-raisers or just for fun.

Visiting Zinnantes has become somewhat of a fun pastime for both regular and new customers. Patrons will come in just to shoot the bull with the family, which Zinnante encourages.

"If they want to come in here and take my abuse, they're welcome to it," he says.

Go and get the abuse while you can. Zinnante's might relocate in the near future or even (gasp!) close. Seems the city of Houston wants the deli to install two handicap-accessible restrooms, for which it has not a smidgen of space.

Got a favorite cafe, restaurant or hole in the wall? Any comments or suggestions for this column? Zap them my way at btavakol@bayou.uh.edu.

Zinnante's Deli

9806 Hillcroft

(713) 723-7001

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