If you have preconceptions about Palestine, the historic town in East Texas' Anderson County, something like the above photos almost certainly fills your mind's eye.
And after spending the weekend there, I can tell you that visual is exactly right. The old railroad town doesn't feel too different from its turn-of-the-century heyday. But for better or for worse, the majority of the food options in town are jarringly modern. Chains rule the roost and although there are some quaint bakeries and sandwich spots in the city's old-fashioned downtown, most are closed in the evening. But tucked into the hills a few miles from the modest main drag, Switch Brick Oven Pizzeria & Wine Bar is doing things very, very right—and staying open for dinner.
In 2013, former Philadelphia court reporter Carmen Santone and his Texas native wife, Regina, opened Switch as a from-scratch neighborhood pizzeria, later expanding to include pasta. They'll add a grill soon, too, says Regina. But Carmen will remain serious about the made-in-house ethic. The pizzas, crafted from imported Italian flour and San Marzano tomatoes, are topped with mozzarella that the chef-owner pulls fresh each day. Since I was in town solo, I didn't get to try a pie, but was mightily impressed with what I did taste.
Apologies for the dimly lit pictures, but it hardly matters. The Dolce e Salato (sweet and salty) salad isn't a visual wow. However, the balance of flavor had a mighty impact. The Gorgonzola dolce crumbled finely over the collection of arugula and spinach was smooth and funky with just a wisp of the sweetness its name promised. Tender chunks of pear gushed in contrast with walnuts roasted to a satisfyingly nutty crunch. The flavors were bound together with a subtle but tangy Champagne vinaigrette. And it was light enough to prepare me for the caloric onslaught that followed.
When I spoke to Regina Santone after my meal, I admitted that I had reservations about ordering a carbonara in the country. It's an easy dish to mangle. Even in Houston, I usually avoid it as soon as I see the dish's contents on the menu. I'll let peas slide (they're common in the U.S., not so much in Italy), but if I see anything else besides eggs, cheese and guanciale or bacon, I don't want it. And this was the real deal—al dente spaghetti lightly coated only in a combination of egg and pecorino Romano, but with a drizzle of white truffle oil so light that it added a veil of earthiness to the pasta's aroma and flavor, but didn't interfere with the simple ingredients. The thick-cut pancetta was lovingly crisped so that its crunch held up throughout my meal.
My only wish is that I didn't have to drive to 150 miles for another taste. But that probably won't stop me.