Houston probably has more Italian restaurants than barbecue joints. The restaurants on the leading edge of the Italian wave have wood-burning ovens, rotisseries, and grills, preferably installed in the open, where customers can watch the cooks conjure up dishes from Tuscany, that delightful part of Italy around Florence. Tuscan cuisine is light, wholesome, and earthy, featuring plenty of grilled and roasted meats, fish, and vegetables lightly seasoned with olive oil and herbs. The people of Florence—the birthplace of the Renaissance and of modern cuisine—have been cooking healthy food this way since the sixteenth century. Three new restaurants stand out among the many that now feature some form of Tuscan cooking: La Mora Cucina Toscana, Piccola Cucina, and La Griglia.
La Mora, at 912 Lovett Boulevard in Montrose, bears the name of a restaurant outside Lucca in Tuscany—an auspicious sign. Owner Lynette Hawkins, who worked at Damian’s and Carrabba’s in Houston before opening La Mora a little more than a year ago, spent part of her childhood in Florence and studied cooking with noted Florentine author-chef Giuliano Bugialli. Her cozy country place is decorated in ocher and terra-cottas. The impressive menu features creative adaptations of Tuscan dishes, beginning with antipasti and ending with citrus sorbettos and a divine tiramisu layered with clouds of mascarpone cream.
Choosing among antipasti is a daunting task. How can one resist the chicken liver pâté and white-bean puree on little pieces of toast? Or a host of grilled antipasti: eggplant with green-olive pesto, chicken galantine sausage, portobella mushrooms, or tuna with cannellini beans? Other delightful choices include imaginative multicolored polenta dishes and a thick, hearty, traditional ribollita soup.
Among the notable pasta dishes are the restaurant’s signature tortelli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served in a sage butter sauce, spaghetti primavera with grilled vegetables, and spaghetti “in a bag” with perfectly cooked seafood in a strangely bland tomato sauce. Hawkins’ delicately grilled salmon is basted in a simple blend of olive oil, lemon, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and Italian parsley. The rotisserie-roasted pork loin, which was savory but slightly overdone, comes flavored with sage, garlic, and rosemary. Daily meat and fish specials—grilled Tuscan style with olive oil—regularly expand the menu. Prices range from $9.75 for spaghetti primavera to $18.95 for the grilled veal chop. The restaurant has an excellent wine list featuring Italian wines exclusively.
The most sophisticated Houston Tuscan restaurant is the largely undiscovered Piccola Cucina, one of the latest ventures of New York restaurateur Pino Luongo, a native of Tuscany. Since opening Il Cantinori in 1983, he has written a cookbook and opened two new restaurants in Manhattan, as well as a smaller version of Piccola Cucina in Dallas.
The full-scale restaurant in Houston opened in August, hidden away in the Galleria behind the upscale Barneys New York store. In good weather the establishment has outdoor dining, which, despite its view of the valet parking lot of Neiman Marcus, gives the place an authentically urban feel, recalling the piazzas of Florence. Inside, the dining room is relatively small and intimate, warmed by the open hearth and rotisserie grill (the name