In a previous career, I reviewed restaurants in and around Waco. Yes, it sounds like a fun job, and it was a great deal of the time. I could always take a dining companion with me for a review meal, and the publication picked up the tab. I ate some really good food in the several years I had that job, and I had some less-than-stellar meals as well.
That gig allowed me to discover Pepe’s, a wonderful Mexican food restaurant in Lake Air Mall. It turned into one of our favorite dinner destinations, and we were often the only customers in the dining room. This was in the last days of Lake Air’s existence, and not many folks visited the mall at all.
I also found El Siete Mares, a Mexican restaurant that at the time was attached to an auto body shop. It served excellent seafood. I stumbled across Starving Artist Bistro, which began life in a small location near the Baylor campus. On a lunch visit one weekday the owner, Gerard Schank, came out and told us what was on the menu that day. I was expecting sandwiches, maybe, but he rattled off a list of dishes that, if memory serves, featured pork tenderloin and lamb and all sorts of other unexpected treasures. Starving Artist eventually moved to a former Dairy Queen location on Estates Drive in Woodway.
Then one evening in 1997, Abby and I had dinner at a new Italian restaurant at 904 North Valley Mills Drive. It was called Baris. The place was busy that night, because it had recently opened and everybody wanted to eat at the hot, new place. I wrote a positive review of Baris, and when Abby and I returned for dinner on the Friday night the review appeared in print, we noticed that diners had brought their newspapers with them and were reading what I wrote as they placed their orders.
The restaurant was slammed. One cook in the kitchen was even yelling about how the newspaper hadn’t told them a positive review was coming, and they were unprepared for the onslaught of customers.
And thus began our long-lasting dining relationship with Baris and its owner, Mary Imeri. For nearly every one of our visits to Baris over the last 24 years, she was a presence at the cash register and at one of the nearby dining tables. I could probably count on one hand the number of times we visited Baris and Mary wasn’t there. She was always happy to see us and would ask about the kids on the rare times Abby and I ate there by ourselves. And when the kids were with us, Mary always offered a gumball from the big plastic tub she kept near the register. I don’t want to know how many little kid hands fumbled through those gumballs looking for a favorite color.
My go-to dish on the menu was usually the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, with grilled mushrooms and peppers. I once made the mistake of asking the waitress for mayonnaise, and she returned to the table and told us that Mary said no. I could have the wonderful tart house salad dressing or marinara sauce for my sandwich, but Mary wouldn’t allow me to add mayo.
On several occasions, when I would go up to the register to pay, Mary would just tear up the ticket and say, “Happy Easter” or “Happy Thanksgiving,” whatever holiday would be close at hand, or just say, “I got this one.” Once when that happened, I was going to write a check to pay for our meal. I told Mary that I didn’t have cash to leave a tip, and she handed me a $5 bill from the register to leave for our waitress.
And Baris was more than just a place to eat for us. We marked birthdays, anniversaries, last-day-of-school — anything worth celebrating, it was often done at Baris.
A few years after Baris opened, Abby and I moved to Little Rock. When we would come back to Waco, we’d drive past my parents’ house and make Baris our first stop in town. We would have dinner, then drive back to Bellmead to see my folks.
Mary died on January 16. She was a beloved figure in Waco, as evidenced by the hundreds of comments on the Facebook pages of her son and the restaurant. In the post announcing her passing, it mentioned Mary’s “second family, the loyal customers of Baris.”
I had read interviews with Mary over the years, and she was stingy with her recipes. She wouldn’t share them, at all. And I don’t blame her. It was the food that brought customers to Baris. One course I teach at Baylor is a New Student Experience class, which is for freshman journalism majors only. Since most of them are new to Waco, we talk about what they need to experience during their four years here. I always recommend Baris. I tell them, “It’s got the best food and worst parking lot in Waco.”
Our recipes this month are inspired by the menu at Baris, but the rolls in the photo are from the restaurant, because we couldn’t begin to duplicate those. In keeping with Mary’s spirit, Baris didn’t charge me for the rolls when I told the hostess why I needed them. I hope we can be inspired by Mary’s generosity and love. We miss her.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
- 1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon (or more) crushed red pepper, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
- 4 fresh basil leaves, torn
- Pinch dried oregano, or more to taste
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 16 ounces linguine, cooked al dente and drained
- Alfredo sauce, from recipe below (optional)
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the garlic. Saute until almost golden brown. Add the undrained tomatoes, wine, sugar, red pepper, salt and pepper. Mix well. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Stir in the capers, parsley, basil and oregano. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
About 15 minutes prior to serving, season the shrimp with salt and pepper. In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the lemon juice and stir, then add the shrimp. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then flip and cook on the other side for another 2-3 minutes, until just done.
Pour the sauce over the hot pasta, add the shrimp and its cooking liquid and toss everything together. If you want a pink sauce, as often served at Baris, add Alfredo sauce to taste. Top with freshly grated Parmesan.
Makes about 4-6 servings.
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream, divided
In a large heavy skillet, stir 2 cups of the cream and the lemon juice to blend. Add the butter and cook over medium heat just until the butter melts, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of cream and Parmesan to the sauce. Add the lemon zest, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and stir until the sauce thickens slightly.
Makes 6-8 servings.
- 5 teaspoons superfine sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon lard (or shortening)
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons marsala wine
For the filling:
- 1 1/2 pounds full-fat ricotta
- 2 ounces fresh goat cheese
- 1 cup superfine sugar
- 1 1/2 ounces semisweet mini chocolate chips
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
To make the dough, in a large bowl, whisk together sugar, cinnamon, salt and 2 cups flour. Add lard and work into dry ingredients with your fingers until mixture is crumbly and no pieces of lard are larger than a pea. Separate white from one egg and place into a small bowl; set aside. Place yolk in another small bowl and add whole egg. Beat lightly to combine.
Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and pour in egg yolk mixture. Using a fork, gradually work in dry ingredients until a thick paste forms. (You will not have mixed in all of the dry ingredients.) Add vinegar and wine to paste and continue mixing in dry ingredients until fully incorporated and dough becomes hard to mix. (If the dough gets too hard to mix, knead in bowl with your hands to work it in).
Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until dough is very supple, about 3 minutes. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour, or overnight.
To make the filling, press ricotta and goat cheese through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl by scraping firmly with a rubber spatula. Mix in sugar and chocolate until just combined. Cover bowl and chill at least 1 hour to give sugar time to dissolve.
When ready to make the cannoli, divide dough in half. Rewrap one half and chill until ready to use. Roll out remaining half on a lightly floured surface to about an 11-inch round about 1/16-inch thick. Cut out rounds with a 5-inch cutter to make five rounds. Reroll scraps to yield one more round.
Lightly beat the reserved egg white. Wrap a dough round loosely around a cannoli tube, and brush the overlapping dough with egg wash. Gently press the seam to flatten and adhere. Transfer to a baking sheet as you go. Continue with remaining dough rounds. After all the dough has been wrapped around the tubes, place the baking sheet in the freezer while the oil heats.
Line another rimmed baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels or place a rack on a baking sheet.
Pour oil into a large saucepan or Dutch oven to come 2 inches up the sides. Place over medium-high heat until a thermometer registers 375 F.
Fry shells with tubes, two at a time, moving them gently around in the oil to cook evenly, until deep golden brown. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Let cool completely, then slip shells off of tubes. Repeat process, frying two at a time, to make about 12 cannoli shells.
Fill pastry bag with filling with a large round tip. Pipe into shells, working from the center to one end, then turning shell around and piping from the center to the opposite end. Sprinkle with chocolate chips and dust with powdered sugar.
Makes about 12 cannoli.