A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by On The Rocks in Cottonwood Shores to find out what they have been up to lately. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and some friends were there watching the football game while Matt Orlando and his mother, Leslie, were experimenting in the kitchen with some wonderful Italian appetizers. Everything they brought out was delicious, from crusty fried artichoke hearts to stuffed jalapeños, but were they restaurant fare? Could they be prepared and served promptly, for instance, or were these treats to be reserved for special occasions?
From the time they opened the restaurant about 16 months ago, the family has continually asked those kinds of questions and has sought feedback from their customers. They even have an “everyone’s a critic” night when they ask people to comment on a particular item they want to improve on. You can save 40% on Wednesday nights if you complete the survey. They are intent on responding to customers’ comments and providing a menu that people will enjoy. In fact, Mark Orlando—contractor turned restaurateur—commented, they not only want to satisfy their regular customers, but they also want to woo back potential customers who might have had a less than satisfactory experience on their first visit. Do they get a second chance?
I wrote an article about the restaurant about a year ago. Since then, they have made several changes. In the beginning, the immediate family ran the kitchen and the business and they based the menu on recipes from their family’s Sicilian heritage. For a period of time, they hired another chef, but now Matt Orlando and his mother, Leslie, are back heading things up in the kitchen. The menu is basically Italian (northern Italian dishes along with the family’s traditional Sicilian recipes) but there are enough other items on the menu to satisfy a variety of palates. They have added steaks to the selection and even offer an Italian style chicken-fried steak, a tenderized ribeye battered and fried in olive oil which one customer told them was the best chicken-fried steak ever. They continue to tweak the menu as they respond to their customers’ preferences. All of their food is made “from scratch” and to order—that takes time—but they have also made a concerted effort to hasten the delivery of food from kitchen to table.
Business is always a little slower in the “non season” months and they have taken this opportunity to make improvements to the dining area and make the environment cozier. The interior has a fresh paint job, additional seating and a new bar. There are plans to have a full bar soon, but for now they are serving wine and beer and they offer set-ups. Customers will soon be able to enjoy the gas fireplace in the main dining room.
Winter hours are also different. For the most current information on their hours, menu, live music and special events (such as their Tuesday poker nights), check out the restaurant’s website at diningontherocks.com or call them at 830 637-7417 to check on holiday dates.
The Orlando family’s roots go back to Corleone, a town in the Palermo region of Sicily. The island of Sicily, situated as it is in the crossroads of the Mediterranean, has been influenced over the centuries by many different cultures—the Greeks and Romans, the Arabs, the Normans , the North Africans, and others—and its cuisine is a unique reflection not only of these influences but, of course, its geographic and agricultural situation as well. Certain foods that we tend to think of as “Italian” are, in fact, Sicilian in origin.
During the holidays, the Orlando family, starting with the great-grandparents and extending through the generations—close to 80 people in all!—gathers in Houston to prepare traditional Sicilian treats. The men prepare Italian sausage and the women prepare fig cookies (cuccidati), and other sweet treats. Matt was kind enough to share a couple of these family recipes.
The first of these is a flat soft bread which in its basic form is seasoned with cheese, onions and herbs. Its ancient origins are thought to extend all the way back to the 8th century B.C. and the Greek colonization of the island. There are variant spellings of the name, which means “old lady’s face,” presumably because of the wrinkled surface, and—as you might expect from a recipe that has survived the centuries—you can find many variations in the ingredients. Here’s the Orlando family version.
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FACCIA DI VECCHIA
3 packages active dry yeast
4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
5 pounds (20 cups)
enriched all purpose flour
anchovies Italian cheeses
oregano salt and pepper
Soften yeast in water. Add sugar, salt, and oil. Then mix in flour to a soft dough. Knead on a lightly floured board until smooth (about 10 minutes), adding more flour as needed. Let rise in a large, warm, covered container(about 2 hours).
Grease a 9 x 12 pan with olive oil. Take part of the dough and press it into a the pan. Take pieces of anchovies and press into dough with olive oil. Also pieces of Italian cheese, oregano, salt and pepper. If desired, Italian sausage can be sprinkled over the dough. Let rise in the pan for 2 hours. Sprinkle grated cheese over this. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes or until lightly brown.
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1/2 cup Crisco
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 ½ tablespoons vanilla
1/4 cup milk
4 teaspoons baking powder
9 cups flour
Cream together Crisco, butter then sugar. Add eggs two at a time and beat really well.
Mix vanilla and milk together, then add to above mixture. Add baking powder with about 9 cups of flour or enough until dough handles well.
2 pounds (dried) figs
1/2 pound dates
1/2 box raisins
handful of pecans, walnuts and almonds.
All the above should be ground together. Roll out strips of dough, approximately 2 inches wide, cut in strips. Spread filling on strips of dough, then roll dough in long log. Cut in sections. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 325 for 45 minutes.