Valian’s: Houston’s First Pizza Pie

Valian’s, 1955 (Postcard Courtesy of Vito Schlabra)

Valian’s opened on South Main at Holcombe, across the street from the Shamrock Hotel, in 1955, as the first restaurant in Houston serving “pizza pie.”  I’ve written on this subject before, but I only received this beautiful postcard shot yesterday from Vito Schlabra, one of my old St. Thomas High School buddies. The desire to write a few more lines about the first and still best pizza to ever hit town was irresistible.

Unless you grew up Italian in Houston, chances were great heading into the 1950s that you had no idea in the world what a pizza was. Our Texan palates were just that deprived. We liked all kinds of food – and that included chicken, chicken fried steak, and a broad variety of Mexican dishes. Of course, we liked Italian food too – as long as it came in the form of meatballs and spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, but delights like  lasagna, ravioli, manicotti, fettucine, and pizza were not back then even words that ever fell from our lips in everyday speech at hunger time. We were simple cokes and burgers kids.

Then came Valian’s and everything began to change. Forever.

Slow on the draw with things new, I didn’t discover Valian’s until 1957 and the spring of my freshman year at the University of Houston. And it happened on campus during the annual Frontier Fiesta that we staged each spring for the purpose of having fun and throwing our student mean GPA out the window.

One of the fraternities, I think it was Alpha Phi Omega, ran a little cafe they built in our little Fiesta City western town called Yosemite Sam’s. They were selling Valian’s “pizza pie” by the slice. It was the first time I’d ever come close enough to smell that alluring cheese aroma and just had to give it a try. No more than two slices later, I was hooked for life.

There was something different about the unique cheese, tomato sauce, and crisp crust taste of Valian’s pizza that I’ve never tasted elsewhere – and there is nothing even close to Valian’s in the Houston of 2010 that I’ve been able to discover either.

Pizza is not this Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s bloated “cheese bomb” that these corporate clowns like to disguise as “deep dish.” Pizza is the ultimate “man’s food” – and that includes all simple prepared foods that may be eaten on the spot, heated or cold, with virtually equivalent sensuous satisfaction to the male palate.

When the Valian’s family closed their place on South Main in the early 1980s, they also closed the door on their incomparable recipe for this terrific culinary delight. If only someone in that family knew what it could mean to bring that special pizza back to Houston in 2010. They could blow away the feeble cast of competition inside of thirty days, tops.

One funny pizza memory I have to retell. When I told my mom about Valian’s, she didn’t rush my dad out there to try it. She did what moms of that era did. She went to the grocery store, looking for ingredients, and found even more. She located one of the first “pizza pies” at the A&P on Lawndale near 75th in the still fairly new frozen food section. Knowing nothing more of pizza than the facts that it came frozen and was then called “pie” by both Dean Martin and her beloved son Bill (i.e., “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore”), Mom bought the product at the store  and brought it home to serve cold and unthawed to my dad as dessert. – I wasn’t around to post any warning.

“What in the Sam Hill hell is this?” I think were my dad’s reported words after he bit once into the still unthawed taste of frozen pizza. Even when I later took my parents to Valian’s, dad would not try pizza prepared the right way. You see, once dad made a decision, there never was a court of higher appeal. He was like that about food and just about everything else. No matter how unfairly it may have occurred, pizza lost its only chance with Dad. It was the word “pie” and the temperature of the frozen food that misled Mom. She knew how to read, but often didn’t. So much for whatever instructions may have come with the grocery version.

Where are you Valian’s, now that Houston could use a really good pizza again?

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46 Responses to “Valian’s: Houston’s First Pizza Pie”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Brothers Pizza-New York Style-4 in HOUSTON.

  2. Dr. D. Says:

    They also had incomparable spaghetti & meatballs that could be special ordered with mushrooms and melted cheese.

    We would hit Valian’s in the mid to late ’60s after Cougar Basketball games. Not only was the food fabulous, but Mr. Valian was one of the nicest gentleman I have ever met!

    You are right – no current place compares!

  3. Vacavile Pizza Says:

    Well written blog! It seems to be a good resource on Pizza. I found you in google while doing research on my recent post about , here: http://napolipizzavacaville.com/ I think my points are relevant 🙂 In any event, I found your article very helpful and informative.

  4. larry joe"Longball" miggins Says:

    “My mouth is watering,stomach growling and my nose flairing for the taste and smell of fresh Italian pizza right out of the oven” Thanks Bill

  5. Patrick Callahan Says:

    One of the all time classic restaurante’s of the bygone era in Houston; great food, reasonably priced for its time, casual atmosphere -great smells of fresh food being prepared…WOW

    Some other great places (maybe not as casual – and higher priced) were Kaphan’s, Gaido’s, Geo. Dentler’s Pier 21, The Red Lion (Geo. Crowder) *, Weldon’s Cafeteria on So. Main (huge portions), Matt Garner’s BBQ on W. Gray, Capt. John’s (Seafood- also W. Gray), Leslie’s Fried Chicken (way out on Bissonett), One’s-A-Meal (several), Bill Williams (Chicken Savage Style – on So. Main), Ye Olde College Inn (So. Main across from Rice U.) – and really high roll’n The Confederate House (on San Felipe) *

    * = got “blitzed” in those places more than once – good bars – made real stiff drinks

  6. Oscar S. Says:

    Valians on Friday or Saturday nights after our high school football games or going for dinner with a date. Wow what memories!!!!

    A salad with bleu cheese dressing to die for. Fried shrimp, with a stuffed bake potato, I’m in heaven and I never left earth.

    My O MY where is the Vailan’s family?

  7. Sluggo Says:

    I discovered Valians in 1958 when I attended St. Thomas High School. Many dates were treated to an evening at Valians and the very best pizza I have ever tasted. Besides having a great topping the crust was the best, thin, crisp but never burned or tough.
    My wife and I had our second date there. The first date was planned there but I had a favorite uncle pass away and we ended up going by Earthmas on Main. She got to meet the whole family on the first date.
    after we were married, 1963, we had dinner at Valians at least once a week.

  8. Tom C. Says:

    What I remember about Valian’s was the taste of thier Fried Shrimp. It has never been equaled anywhere. I went to Milby H.S. & my wife went to Austin H.S. Started dating in 1953 and we went to Valians many times during our my college days at U of H. We continued going after we got married in 1959 as it was our favorite resturant. Another popular resturant was Trader Vick’s accross the street at the Shamrock during those years. We would always go to Trader Vick’s when we were in Denver or Dallas thru my career days.

    • Cathy Sims Massey Says:

      Tom C: My husband also went to Milby and I went to Austin. We married in 1959 also. We also attended U of H – he was a Pi Kappa Alpha and I was a Zeta Tau Alpha. His name was Raymond Massey and I am Cathy Sims. ANy memories of us? And of course we dated at Valian’s and still went after we married.

  9. Hazel Loving Camara Says:

    What a great memory! My brother, Jerry Loving and my sister Dianne Loving and I grew up in the eastend and there were no good restaurants in our area;and even if there were we could not afford them. Thankfully, my best friend, Barbara Wildy and her parents always included me in their many dining experiences and the first time (in the mid-50’s) I went to Vilian’s was with them. Boy, I thought I was in hog heaven ;and like so many comments that have already been made, the food to this day is still memorable. After graduating and getting my first job, I would go to Vilian’s; and when my engagement to my first husband was announced we invited our families to Vilian’s.
    Some of the other great restaurants along South Main were: Youngblood’s; Sonny Look’s; Trader Vic’s; Christie’s Seafood; Ye Ole College Inn and Kaphan’s to mention a few. Too bad all we have now are the “cookie cutter” restaurants……not too many original ones left.
    It is so nice to go down’MEMORY LANE”, to recall the great places, activities and restaurants that were available back in the 1950’s; the 50’s were truly the FABULOUS FIFTIES. THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES.

    • Cathy Sims Massey Says:

      Hi, Hazel. Imagine seeing your name on this comment sheet. We did have some good times there, didn’t we? How are you? Have you tried to get with the SFA Fillies for some gatherings? We would love to have you. Us old hens get together and do nothing but eat, drink and talk! Can’t beat it. Hope this finds you well!!

      Cathy

    • Sheri Horelica Says:

      Many memories here as well. Remember going to Valian’s when it was THE place to be taken on a date. Enjoyed your article. I remember your sister Diane from my days at SFA High School. A lifetime ago.
      Sharon Dunaway

  10. Blase Licce Says:

    Well you hit a couple of Great Notes and Memories. As an old Pecan Park Italian Guy, (Lived on Fir at Kellog) I remember the great nights at Valien’s too .One was on prom night we finished the night off with a trip to Vakiens, and later for a real treat My wife and I would go there for a “Fancy” dinner.
    We always thought it was only for the Italians,,Why else would the name be Valien’s Italian Restaurant,,,?
    also some of my Buddies and I would always look for those “Mafia Guys”
    Do you think He’s one? would always enter the Conversation.
    Thanks for the Romp through Memory Lane! Oh , and the pizza was fantastic as you have already expressed….Blase

  11. Cathy Sims Massey Says:

    Remember when we all dressed up and went downtown to the movie theater on a Saturday nite date? The next step was to go to Valian’s afterward for their fantastic pizza. We were also at U of H in 1958 and after all the Frontier Fiesta practices and then all the performances, we all went to Valian’s. And as luck would have it, when Valian’s closed, it was replaced by the Shriners Hospital for Children – Orthopedic Unit. My husband was a Shriner and we were there for the opening and his name is in the cornerstone – and the note he put in the cornerstone was about how he spent time on that spot at Valian’s and then donated his time at Shriners Hospital. A good “go-around”. I also went to school with Hazel Loving Camaro and the Barbara Wildy she spoke of in her comment above. Wonderful times! Wonderful Food!

  12. Anthony P Says:

    On Friday or Sat or after a Italian wedding at the Shamrock, me and my girlfriend (at that time, now my wife) would go and either get the Lasagna or the pizza or both, best Lasagna in the town at that time, it was a real tragadey to see Valian’s and the Shamrock go.
    Life was sure allot eaiser then, no kids no real responsibility to speak of.
    WHAT HAPPENED?
    MONEY MONEY MONEY, that’s what happened and progress
    oh well it sure was a nice time.

  13. Charlotte Stephens Says:

    My very old and good friend Mike and I have been discussing Valian’s for years. We grew up in the same era where your parents took you and the family out to eat maybe once a week and Valian’s was the top spot. Mike has owned several pizza places himself has an adult and even shares that his receipe, however good, can not and no one elses has or will ever compare to Valian’s. We, has thousands of others wishes SOMEONE in the Valian’s family would sell just the pizza receipe to SOMEONE and let us know. Please.

  14. Biotin side Effects Says:

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  15. Dan R. Says:

    I am also from the era where your parents took the family out once a week to eat. Valian’s was always the place I would pick. If it had been up to me, we would’ve been there everyday. We would load up the car and make the trek from Sugar Land (back then that was out in the “country”) up 90A until we could see the green neon lights of the Shamrock. I remember a big statue of an Italian chef holding a pizza over his head and also a gun-slinging shrimp (not sure if that was in front of Valian’s or another restaurant close-by). I also remember small white lights covering the ceiling of Valian’s. I think it was in the main dining room near the cashier (this was in the early to mid-seventies). And, of course, no visit to Valian’s was complete without a handful of Kentucky mints from the bowl by the cash register! Valian’s pizza was and still is the measure against all other pizzas for me and nothing else has ever measured up. Valian’s family, please bring back your wonderful pizza. I guarantee you would absolutely clean up against the pitiful “competition” here in Houston.

  16. Ed G. Says:

    I grew up in Houston, but I haven’t lived there in fifty years, and yet I still remember Valian’s pizza as the best pizza I ever ate. I first heard of pizza in a Martin and Lewis movie in the early fifties, so I knew how to pronounce it before the other members of my family. One day I was driving down south main with my family, it was in the mid fifties, right after Valian’s opened. Mom saw a Valian’s sign and said “What is this new “Pizz- a” I’ve been hearing about?” She pronounced it Pizz- a like the sound of Fizz- a but with a P. I said “Mom, it’s not called Pizz- a, it’s pronounced like Pete’s- a”. She said “Then why don’t they spell it that way?” I said “Mom, because it’s Italian” Houston always had the best cafeterias, I’ve never found anything like them in the other states where I’ve lived. There was an unusual automat style cafeteria downdown in the fifties called ONE’S A MEAL. It seemed very modern to me as a kid, all chrome and glass, wiith a glass door that opened mysteriously when I approached it. I loved the way we put in coins and got food out of little glass compartments in the wall. I wonder when One’s A Meal finally closed.

  17. Norma Brady Jeter Says:

    Any time we’re around old friends, conversations turn to Valian’s Pizza – as well as any time we eat Pizza – there will never be a substitute–not even close–! Same thing with Prince’s Hamburgers – the new owners say they have the recipe of the original sauce, and there is a hint of the flavor–but again, no substitute! Maybe the ambiance was a part of the mix–but oh how we would love to have the real things again!! Our kids and grandkids have no idea what they’re missing! Kathy Sims – I think I remember you – I was Chi Omega, Eric was SAE – Class of ’58. San Jacinto for me, Austin HS for Eric.

  18. Norma Brady Jeter Says:

    Cathy Sims – oops on spelling your name!
    Can’t find you or Raymond in the 1958 yearbook – but we’ll look in some older ones! Living in Spring TX now — see Joni McConnell Black and husband Dave frequently at Republican events.

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  22. Jane Switzer Says:

    My parents were Rice students in the 50’s and loved Valian’s pizza. I remember the banquet room with the Houston athletic murals painted all around the edges of the domed ceiling. I also recall a smaller “to go” Valians, near W. Gray (?) where you could buy Valian’s “pre-baked” pizza. They would top and partially bake the pizza and the customer would bake it the rest of the way at home! We later discovered DePaul’s pizza on Shepherd @ 22nd or so. Both pizzas unique, really Italian and delicious!! Sorry that Valian’s has closed and that no legacy remains….
    “Bunnie” Jane Baggett (Daughter of David and Roberta {Taylor}Baggett)

  23. Sharon Tilotta Says:

    I miss Valian’s pizza! I rarely eat pizza anymore because I want to taste Valian’s again! Can’t somebody do something to bring that pizza back?

  24. Jason Loftice Says:

    I remember Vallians from the 70’s and early 80’s, Like everyone else above it was the greatest pizza and pasta in town… every Friday night, my gransparents would treat the entire family to Vallians as they had since the 50’s. Does anyone remember the red room that had all the sculptures and bust along the walls? The imitation apple tree too. Once my cousin and I had a food fight at our family table, flinging black olives off of spoons into old ladies hair-dos. It must have been embarrasing to my family, good thing Mr. Vallian new my grandparents as regular customers. Miss it very much…..Sorry to say that Houston really isn’t the same without these culinary landmarks we all grew up with.

  25. JAN T. Steinberg Says:

    Jan Steinberg Says:

    I hate to be the fly in the ointment, but my memory of Valians goes back to the late ’50’s when I was in high school. Normally after a date or a party, we teenagers went somewhere like Bill Williams for a hamburger. However, once in a blue moon when we wanted to “show off” we took our dates to Valian’s (there was really nowhere else to go in those days). We were never noisy our rowdy or annoying to the waiters – we knew this wasn’t the place to act that way. However all the resteraunt personal – from the owner on down – treated us with rudeness and contempt. One time on a Saturday afternoon a few of us high schoolers and 2 young teachers -one was married, the other was an Italian-American who I believed was from a prominet Houston Family – were working on a project. After a few hours we decided to go to Valian’s for a pizza. Before we even got near the door, we were met by a waiter who told us they don’t serve teenagers. One the teachers replied, “I’m 24.” We left and went somewhere else where we were made to feel welcome. As the years went by, I was glad to see the establishment of other italian restaurants where not only could I get good food but get treated with human decency.

  26. Jim Spratley Says:

    Wrong! Simpson’s Dining Car on South Main offered the first Pizza Pie, ca. 1954. I don’t think Valian’s was even open yet. My wife said it smelled like puke.

    Jim Spratley

  27. Vb5190@aol.com Says:

    Yes, many memories! We could not afford to eat out often, but , valiant was one of my favorites. Their Wop salad! Oh, the dressing was an Italian! How I would love to have there recipe. Why do these places close? They were sooooo good and always packed. Vicki Gonsoulin

  28. Janis Carbone Says:

    Valian’s! What a blast from the past. Italian Weddings at the Rice Hotel and Shamrock almost weekly and afterwards everyone piling into cars and heading to Vailian”s for Pizza and the Wop Salad. Tiny Roman, the biggest Police Officer I ever saw, was always there watching our comings and goings on entering and leaving. He was impressive! When he wasn’t working, my Uncle JC, also a Police Officer, worked the door. It was so much fun. All sides of town were represented. Parents were fun and always welcome. Now there are so many excellent Italian Restaurants, but ….. there is no Valian’s Pizza. i was sorry to see it close. I grew up Sicilian, and my Mom made the Sicilian style Pizza. It wasn’t Valian’s, but it was awesome. Bill Bennett”s, Kaphan’s, Sonny Look’s, and Gaido’s were favorities, too. Good times and good friends always remembered! What could be better than that …. expect Valian’s Pizza.

  29. C. L. Buster Barlow Says:

    Hey, I go back in time to the late 40’s after just getting out of the army and WWII, attending U. of H. and all the neat involvement in student activities… a Sigma Alpha Chi member, and the Crow’s Nest Saloon, etc… but my first taste of pizza was at Bill William;s on South Main.. and, in particular, the anchovies they had as part of the choices for the pizza…. still have and can wear, my Frontier Fiesta blue jacket with Yosemite Sam on the back…Sang in a western quartet to open the Crow’s Nest show, with Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women….We had to build those show buildings with rough lumber, and took weeks to install sound and lighting …. fun times, to be sure….BBA ’48

  30. Clay Says:

    As someone else mention, the aroma was wonderful. I had taken many a date there. It closed before I met the girl who became my wife! Pity!

  31. Geraldine Nichols Says:

    I worked a Valians in the late 60s, early 70s. I wish it was still there. I met my ex husband there, had 2 children who would not exist had there been no Valians. We took our kids there to meet George Valian and told him so. Mr. Valian thought that we named our daughter Tiffany, after his Tiffany room. My ex carved Ken loves Gerry on wood in the ceder room, wish i could have gotten that piece of wood when the restaurant closed.

    • Geraldine Nichols Says:

      I saw someone asked if Valians served alcohol. Yes indeed! As a waitress there, I opened many a bottle of Chianti, with the straw basket wrapping the bottle. There were Chianti bottles on the table with candles melting down the bottles. We served Sauterne, and a pink wine. That is all that I remember about the alcohol. My future husband and I both worked there. He was a NASA co-op student and worked at Valiens partime while he worked at NASA. Wish I could go back.

  32. Jo Ann Pusateri Says:

    Remember Valian’s well. Loved the pizza but loved the Wop Salad even more. Every time I had a baby, my husband would bring a salad from Valian’s to the hospital. The post card of Valian’s is wonderful but does anyone have snapshots of the interior? When Valian’s closed, Mr. Valian’s sold off the furnishings. We ended up with the two side chairs from the ladies restroom, a wood sculpture that had hung in the bar area and one of the crystal chandeliers.

  33. Sharon Tilotta-Aaron Says:

    Wish we could get the recipe.

  34. Clay Says:

    Me Too! I would love to be able to make one for my grand kids and smell the aroma again!

  35. badblogcollection Says:

    As CL Buster Barlow and others said, there was pizza in Houston well before Valian’s, and before the mid 50s. Sounds like you and your family were just sheltered (esp. from your story about your mother and the frozen pizza – and the idea that there was frozen pizza in the grocery stores also casts doubt on your claim there were no pizza places in Houston before then), and you sound like you are still sheltered if you think that Houston “could use a really good pizza place again”. Just because all you know is the crappy national chains doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great independent local pizza places in Houston – Dolce Vita,Pizarro’s, Star, Fuzzy’s, Napoli, Antonio’s, Pinks, Russo’s, just to name a few.

    • sheri Says:

      Valians was and remains a historical icon as a wonderful restaurant, with really nice ambiance, a place to meet and see friends, or go on a special date, and holds many memories for those of us who frequented the place. BUT, evidently, we are all just sheltered losers who have been waiting for someone such as yourself to come along and wake us up! LOL! Thanks dude.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks for the Christmas cheer, “bbc”. You were right on two points: (1) the national pizza chains are awful; and (2) the independent places you mentioned serve great pizza. We never laid claim to anything different. Unfortunately, you misread Barlow’s claim about the pizza at Bill Williams. Had you been around in those days, and had you been a regular customer at Bill Williams, you would have known that they only added pizza to their menu after Valian’s.

      All Buster said was that Bill Williams was the place he tasted pizza for the first time. He never said he ate it there before Valian’s even existed.

      There may have been pizza places in Houston out there before Valian’s, but a few thousand of us out here don’t remember them.

      Perhaps you can provide us with the names of these places and some idea as to where they were located. Some proof of their existence would also be helpful. If they existed, we probably have the people here to validate your pizza business sites.

      As for being sheltered as a kid, there was no such thing in my part of the East End. My mom was just an old school country girl who took many things literally. If the dad gum thing calls itself pizza pie and it comes frozen, you should be able to thaw the thing up to room temp and serve it like pie, right? Nope.

      This is a blog for people who like local history, nostalgia, humor, literature, and baseball – plus other random topics. The only thing we don’t welcome here are trolls – those people who live to do fights with strangers in the shadows of the Internet.

      So, please do a little honest trip-check on the nature of your desire to be with us.

      If you are here to share comments on our columns or the thoughts of other readers in respectful ways, welcome aboard.

      On the other hand ….

      If you are here to make decisions about people based upon what you think they are saying – or to fulfill the goal of being a troll with a self-defined “bad blog collection” as your personal goal in mind from the start – then please – do us and yourself a favor – and go away.

      Either way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

      And stay loving. Stay peaceful. And be healthy.

      ~ The Pecan Park Eagle

      • badblogcollection Says:

        Wow, you seem to have taken my words very personally, far more personally than they were meant. And throwing around epithets like “troll” is neither loving nor peaceful, and it’s a bit of a lazy way to dismiss criticism that wasn’t actually trolling. Yes, my WordPress handle is “badblogcollection”, which originates over 10 years ago when the blogosphere was a fairly new phenomenon, and I thought it would be interesting to examine individual blogs as a mechanism to critique the social phenomenon as a whole. It’s not an endeavor I had any sustaining long term interest in pursuing, but that has remained my WordPress account name.

        I am sorry, but I must insist that when you say “the independent places you mentioned serve great pizza. We never laid claim to anything different,” you are not correct. You did lay claim to something different. Your very last line of your post was “Houston could use a really good pizza again.” Grammatically, linguistically, semantically, any way you slice it (pun intended) saying Houston could use a really good pizza instead unmistakably asserts that Houston once had really good pizza, but does not have really good pizza at the moment. Hence why it “could use” really good pizza, again. Word choice is important, sentence structure is important, careful use of common phrases, idioms, etc. is important when wishing to communicate a thought in writing. It is especially important at the beginning and very end of an essay, such as the sentence in question, your very last sentence, which in an essay serves to wrap up the essence of the essay’s message, and leaves the final impression of the essay in the reader’s mind. If you did not mean to claim that there is currently no great pizza in Houston, your final sentence did not serve you well.

  36. Ann Finley Says:

    Amen!!! I miss the gigantic shiskbob out front of the restaurant. (Which was actually the back because you had to drive around back of the building to park and the entrance was right there. Their pizza was THE BEST!!!

  37. paul galvani Says:

    Bill, this is Paul Galvani. I am writing a book called Lost restaurants in Houston. I am seeking permission to use the postcard that you have in this article that you received from Vito Schlabra. Please let me know how I might contact him or if you have his permission to use this image.

  38. Felix Says:

    This makes my mouth water! I was there in 1956. I can still fell the atmosphere of the restaurant and the taste of real pizza.

  39. Bob C. Says:

    Does anyone know whatever happened to George Vallian or the family? Maybe an heir has the receipes.

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