Renowned chef brings Old World Italian to The Woodlands
There is an old painting above the fire place in the dining room at Aldo's Cucina Italiana. The painting is likely called "Old Man With Grapes," because it depicts an old man smelling a bunch of grapes, no doubt destined for a fantastic wine vintage. It is a painting Chef Aldo El Sharif has brought with him to each restaurant he has opened.
The painting, and more particularly its frame, are not there for their aesthetic value, but rather to remind El Sharif of the core values on which he focuses his concept: good food, good service, good place and good price. He relates each concept to a piece of the picture's frame.
"If the picture is missing one frame or two frames, how is that picture going to look?" El Sharif said. "You've got to frame your concept."
He has long been one of the Houston area's top chefs, but health problems, a troublesome home life and a desire to keep trying new things have kept El Sharif from staying in one place for very long.
Born in Egypt to an Italian mother and an Egyptian father, El Sharif traveled the world learning about cultures and their cuisines before cooking in the world's dining Meccas: Milan, Monte Carlo, Athens, Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Cairo and New York.
"Any country—Egypt, Romania, England, name the empire—they created cuisine for the empire itself," he said. "So food becomes a part of civilization. It's not about eating to live. It's about quality of life. You've got your food, you've got your company, you've got your wine. What else do you need? That's quality of life."
In 1982, El Sharif found himself in Houston, where he opened the eight-table, $1,000-per-person Aldo's Dining Con Amore. Later, with much scaled-back prices and larger dining rooms, he operated Buttarazzi in Champions and later Polliciana. For years, he resisted making a foray into The Woodlands market, but when the building that Aldo's Cucina Italiana currently occupies became available at a good price, El Sharif could no longer resist the temptation.
Now open for more than a year, the restaurant has become known for its spectacular Old World-style Italian food offered at an affordable cost. All of Aldo's pasta dishes are under $20, and all of the seafood selections are under $30.
"Deliver a dollar for a dollar," El Sharif said. "Don't stiff the clientele. I want people to say 'wow.' When they eat, 'Wow.' When they pay the bill, 'Wow.'"
With his Woodlands restaurant, El Sharif has taken a different approach to his concept. Rather than cooking to appease critics or gain notariety, he is cooking food that pleases him first and foremost.
"I'm not looking to be a big shot, I'm looking to cook," he said. "My bottom line is, put the frying pan in my hand and let me cook."
El Sharif focuses on cooking with the highest quality and freshest possible ingredients, even going so far as to ensure special fishes from as far away as the English Channel and Hawaii are brought to his restaurant fresh, never frozen.
"I believe if you want to cook, you better put the quality ingredients together," he said. "Good ingredients make your job a lot easier."
El Sharif calls Aldo's Cucina Italiana his "last hurrah," a sort of cooking farewell in part for his wife, and for his business partner, Sam.
Having worked more than 40 years in kitchens the world over, the affable El Sharif hopes to cook until his final day.
"My happiest day will be if I drop dead in the kitchen with my chef clothes dirty," he said. "I wish I could see myself when I die with a big smile on my face."
Aldo's Under $20 Pasta
Aldo's Cucina Italiana has a sizeable menu that features seafood, chicken and beef selections, but some of the most popular menu options are its least expensive.
- Gnocchi di Patata with gorgonzola cream sauce ($15)
- Tortelloni with goat cheese, sage and butter ($15)
- Wide fazzoletti fresh pasta with braised wild boar ($15)
- Mezzaluna half moon pasta with shrimp, roasted peppers and citrus cream sauce ($17)
- Raviolo with roasted chicken, spinach and pine nuts ($15)
- Lasagna al forno ($15)
Aldo's Cocina Italiana, 18450 I-45 S., Shenandoah, 936-447-9623, www.chefaldo.com
Hours of Operation
- Monday–Saturday: 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
- Sunday: 11 a.m.–3 p.m.