Family inspiration is a driving force when it comes to the culinary influence behind Alexandra Garcia, Café Leonelli’s chef de cuisine and general manager. When she recalled the moments she spent at the table with her family growing up, she held back tears.
“I always like to say that my culinary career started with learning cooking with my family—my mom, my grandma, my aunts, my dad,” Garcia said. “It has always been there since I was a young child, just learning different recipes with them as we cook for the holidays and spend quality time together on Sundays.”
Following her dreams meant leaving her hometown of Harlingen and studying at the Art Institute of Houston. That led to working at different kitchens in the city, including 11 years at Italian American restaurant Maggiano’s Little Italy.
When Garcia found out that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and restaurant group The Bastion Collection were developing a new location in Houston for their New York-based restaurant, she said it was a no-brainer to get involved.
“What better place to be than the Museum of Fine Arts to cook? We have art all around you. There is no better place in Houston,” she said.
Café Leonelli, which opened in April 2021, features dishes rooted in Italian tradition and local ingredients. Garcia’s menu includes house-made focaccia, sandwiches, salads and a full coffee bar. The cafe also boasts a selection of Houston-based beers and hand-selected wines.
Guests can indulge in a variety of pastries and sweets made by Salvatore Martone, Bastion Collection’s executive pastry chef and Michelin Star recipient. Café Leonelli is the only outpost that sells options from Martone’s specialty ice cream shop, Frohzen. All ice creams are made from scratch.
The cafe seats 68 people inside and has room for another 24 on an outdoor patio adjacent to the museum’s sculpture garden.
Although Garcia acknowledged a museum cafe might not come to mind when thinking of where to eat, she said it offers an option to those whose appetites crave more than just a good bite.
“That’s the best part of it, is that this is a great place to come and take a break, have a nice coffee and gelato, and then keep going back out there to explore the museum, every piece and part of it,” Garcia said.
Being located inside a museum also has its perks, Garcia said, including being able to spend breaks in the sculpture garden. When MFAH has new exhibits lined up, museum curators collaborate with the cafe for what they call a Culinary Canvas series.
“They always ask for our influence and if there’s anything that we can do, and get inspiration from those exhibits,” Garcia said. “That keeps it fun and interesting. We get to do different items to help focus on those exhibits.”
When it comes to her favorite items on the menu, Garcia took time to think it over before going back to what serves as her primary inspiration: her family.
“If I had to pick a favorite item, it is probably going to be grapefruit salad, because, again, growing up, we ate grapefruits a lot,” she said. “That’s really what my inspiration was—the love of grapefruits between me and my mother.”
Chef Alexandra Garcia’s favorite recipe
- 4 ounces mixed greens
- 2 tablespoons of pomegranate arils
- 1/5 ounce of julienne red onion
- 4 grapefruit sections cut in half
- 3 pieces of mint, torn
- 1 tablespoon roasted pumpkin seeds
- 1 tablespoon grated Midnight Moon aged goat cheese
- 2 pinches of dry ancho chili powder
- separately made citrus vinaigrette
2. Place the dressed mixed greens in a salad bowl dish.
3. Garnish the salad using the grapefruit sections, pomegranate arils, roasted pumpkin seeds and grated Midnight Moon goat cheese.
4. Sprinkle the chili powder over the salad and enjoy.
5500 Main St., Houston
Hours: Wed., Fri.-Sun. 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thu. 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Mon.-Tue.