Italian soul in the heart of Texas

If an award for ethnic diversity existed, Fay Sutaj-Krasniqi (say soo-tajz kras-nee-kee) would win first prize. Born to a family of Albanian ancestry living on the Italian island of Sicily, she grew up in Switzerland near Lake Como, and planned to become the first female pilot in the Yugoslav air force. Life, however, had another agenda.

After high school she became a civil engineer and computer programmer then followed her husband to Texas where he and her brother-in-law had emigrated from New York City to start the Brothers Pizza restaurant chain in Fort Worth.

Albania is sandwiched between Greece, Yugoslavia, and Romania whose favorite son is Count Dracula.  Sicily has been in business since 800 BC when the Phoenicians sailed in for spaghetti and meatballs.  The sub-tropic island sits two miles west of the Italian “boot” toe tip, and surrounds Mt. Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano which rocked and rolled 13 times during the 20th century.  At the opposite end of Italy, Lake Como fills the basin of a placid valley in the Alps on the Swiss border.  An ocean and half-continent away, Texas is, to hear some cowboys tell it, just a quarter mile south of heaven.

“Europeans,” Fay said a slight foreign accent, “have to speak a lot of languages to get along, and I am fluent in Albanian, Italian, German, French, Croatian, English, and conversational Texan.  After I got here I worked at Brothers for several years, but I wanted to do something else.  I am a person who thinks we women can do anything men can.  I had to become a restaurateur in my own right.”

Her competitive spirit bloomed into the original Palermo’s Italian Café in Fort Worth, named in honor of the city of her birth, and capital of Sicily.

“My objective was to bring the soul of Italy into the heart of Texas,” with a menu of home-style Italian dishes.

After the family moved to Argyle to take advantage of its school district, she opened a second eatery in Bartonville Town Center.

“What was odd is that the restaurant in Fort Worth suffered because its American customers started to act like Italian trattoria clients, and insisted the food was different after I moved.”

Italian restaurant owners lend their own panache to the dining ambiance.  Many close down when the owner is away because locals claim the food tastes different.

“Our Fort Worth clientele started driving out to Bartonville.  The food had not changed in Fort Worth,” but today there is only one Palermo’s in the DFW area.  “If some of my family emigrate from Europe, I might consider opening another restaurant, but for now this is all I can handle.”

In Italy, tourists tend to eat at trattorias and ristorantes.  Palermo’s fits somewhere between a family-owned and operated neighborhood trattoria, and a posh ristorante with printed menus and a staff wine expert.

Except for its roadside signage, the southern Denton County eatery and its quiet pond setting are not visible from Justin Road.

“We don’t advertise,” Fay said, “but depend on word of mouth recommendations.”  This is typical of a snug Italian trattoria that caters to the people in its immediate environs.

Southern Denton County families, friends, and youthful wait staff fill the place with conversational buzz and audible good cheer.

“In the Fort Worth restaurant we had older professional servers,” she said, “but the pool of employees in this area is college kids.”

Home cooking aromas–olive oil, crushed garlic, fresh cut onions, and yeasty homemade breads–waft through Bartonville venue from the door to the rafters.  No TVs or sports commentators blab from the walls inside or out on the covered patio.

In Italian homes good food is a must so Fay’s mother taught her four daughters Italy’s cuisine–la cucina Italiana–early in life.  The restaurant menu consists of a mind-boggling assortment of home cooked creations:  pastas; chicken, sausage, and veal entrees; all kinds of sandwiches, and the seaside city of Naples’ most famous invention, pizza.

“We use authentic imported ingredients.  You can depend on parmesan cheese from Parma, Italy not Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Unique flavors are influenced by production locations, techniques, and equipment.  We strive to give our customers a true Italian eating experience.  We don’t use canned or frozen products.”  The taste and color of things, she said, changes with time on the shelf whether it’s cold or at room temperature.

“Other than our New York Style Pizza with its unpricked, bubbly crust, we only use my mother’s personal recipes and time-tested kitchen techniques, and we make our own fresh pastas and breads daily.”  A portion of semolina flour goes into each wheat recipe to generate that Old World flavor.  She and her husband work the kitchen with a pair of trusted under-chefs.

One Palermo’s specialty is Chicken Piccata.  If you understand the Spanish word picante you know the meaning of piccata.  “We make it with capers,” she said, a pickled flower bud that looks like a peppercorn, but packs more fire.  Hot food fans go for Chicken Piccata.

New York Times food critic John Forsythe once recommended Fay’s lasagna to his readers who had lucky occasion to visit Fort Worth.  John Pisto, host of the television show “A Taste of Monterrey” on the California coast, raved about the restaurant’s lobster ravioli which he prepared for his viewers thanks to Fay’s culinary generosity.

A brick oven pizza sounds self-explanatory, but not all pizzas get cooked in brick-lined ovens on stone shelves that hold the heat steady at 650 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We only have two pizza ovens at Palermo’s, and our pizzas are so popular clients know it will be a couple of hours if they call in for take-out.”

She gestures with her arms to describe the surprising size of a Palermo’s 16-inch pizza.  “New customers are not always prepared for the amount of pizza they’re buying.”

What’s the difference between French cuisine and Italian cucina?  “That’s simple.  Italians use a lot of olive oil and garlic, while the French reach for the butter and cream.”

As babies, Fay’s daughters came to work with Mama who still maintains a “family table” in one corner of the dining room, an authentic trattoria touch.  “People from Sicily are family oriented,” she said.

Weekends the girls, now teenagers, work as servers, but for the moment both of them have other life plans: one to be a pediatrician, and the other a psychiatrist.

“By the time I retire,” Fay said through a hearty laugh, “I may need a psychiatrist!”

She keeps an intense five days a week schedule, arriving at 9 a.m. to prepare for lunch, and closing up shop after dinner time which means getting home late on weeknights, and in the wee hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

It’s not possible to go home from the restaurant and just fall asleep, so she winds down by working on her memoir about how an Italian civil engineer became an American restaurateur.  The book will come out in Europe sometime next year before it hits American book sellers’ shelves after being translated into multiple languages.

Fay doesn’t leave the cooking to chance. Her marinara base matures in the fridge for 24 hours before use.  An honest-to-gawd barrel-sized cooking pot of the red homemade glory stands next of what looks like two bushels of rosy tomatoes inside the door of the big kitchen’s walk-in cooler.

What exactly is marinara?  Think marinating, as in fresh chopped herbs–basil, oregano, thyme, parsley–floating in, and imparting their flavo
rs to melted fresh vegetables—tomatoes, onions, garlic.  Even suppressed by the cool air the mix of smells intoxicate the taste buds.  The red liquid is translucent, and thinner than commercially produced American pasta sauces in jars on grocery shelves.

Fresh is the order of the day in Fay’s world.  “We use new produce from Farmers’ Market every day.  Food is life, so choose to eat well all the time.” 

Contact the writer at [email protected]


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