Pasta and Present
The latest news in Houston’s booming Italian restaurant scene is the savory cuisine of Tuscany.
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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 means “little kitchen”). The understated one-room place is instantly likable, dressed down in warm beiges and natural wood. Prices range from $9 for a plate of lasagna at lunch to $15.50 for osso buco (veal shank) with tarragon at dinner. The quality, alas, is variable, the kitchen being new. But when it is good, it is very, very good.
If there was no other reason to go to Piccola Cucina, a glass of red wine with the restaurant’s focaccia (flat bread) or its dense, chewy Tuscan sourdough amply drizzled with rosemary- or pepper-infused olive oil would be justification enough. But there are other excuses.
Piccola Cucina’s marvelous pizzas are made with an extremely thin, crispy crust. The Due Colori is divided into two parts, one half covered with tomato, basil, and mozzarella and the other with fragrant Gorgonzola. At dinner, a thick, grilled tuna steak with al dente white beans was absolutely delectable. Seared in black pepper in hot oil, it was grilled to a perfect medium rare. Other awe-inspiring dishes include roast baby chicken soaked in red-pepper oil, a plate of straccetti (thinly sliced rare roast beef with meaty grilled portobella mushrooms), and a number of finely sauced pastas.
The dessert list is short, like the rest of the menu, and the sweets are exquisitely minimal and very Italian. Although the fashionable tiramisu is unpleasantly drippy, other choices stand out, including the apple tart made with cinnamon shortbread (served with a mixture of mascarpone and whipped cream) and the polenta pound cake layered with mascarpone cream and topped with a heavenly sprinkle of sugary, espresso-brittle candy.
Perhaps because the restaurant is still new, the service flips between being charmingly attentive and maddeningly distracted. Among other disappointments, the homemade mozzarella is tough and tasteless when served fresh rather than cooked. As a result, a dish of bow-tie pasta made with mozzarella, tomato, basil, and salmon caviar was dysfunctional—none of the parts worked together. The rotisserie-cooked chicken and the game hen were bland and dry, and the risottos in general were mushier than they should be; even so, the mushroom version was all but addictive.
La Griglia is the latest dazzling example of the marketing genius of longtime Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone, whose father opened an Italian restaurant in Houston long before Italian was fashionable. Like Piccola Cucina and La Mora, it emphasizes grilled dishes, but it does not pretend to be strictly Tuscan—in fact, it advertises Sicilian and Neapolitan items. Eating there is an oddly mixed experience—full of energy and irresistible to watch, yet sometimes unfulfilling when you finally turn your attention to the food.
Open only since late October, the glitzy celebrity hangout on West Gray near River Oaks looks like an audition for the society pages even on a weeknight. Except for the tourists and the innocenti throwing office-party lunches, the people who regularly eat here never eat at home. For them, dining is a public ritual. This is the kind of place where a woman walks through the door for lunch talking on her pocket phone and where a man takes his two gorgeous, somewhat tipsy professional escorts to dinner and expects to be admired. Hordes of eager customers wait in the bar for a table to open up (reservations are taken only for parties of six or more), ogling each other and the restaurant’s handsome staff.
The already-famous concrete floor is inscribed with the names of all sorts of bold-faced types who frequent Vallone’s other restaurants—Tony’s, Anthony’s, and the Grotto. Of those, La Griglia most closely resembles the Grotto. The upper walls feature murals of menacing sharks and octopi playing musical instruments, while the lower walls are covered with attractive, colorful patterns made from broken tile.
Given all the diversions, does it really matter whether the food here is good or not? On the plus side, the bread is thick and crusty and the olive oil, presented in little corked bottles, is tasty. The Pompelmo salad—with pears, grapefruit, walnuts, and greens—is excellent and only $4.95, and the rotisserie-roasted half chicken with lemon mint and grilled vegetables is tender and well priced at $9.95. For dessert, a buttery apple pie is memorable, if stupefyingly sweet.
But for the most part there were more bad dishes than good ones, probably because this restaurant is still so new. The calamari in the calamari salad with olives and peppers was almost stinky; the tomatoes and homemade mozzarella in the Tomatoes Caprese were tasteless; the risotto with champagne and shellfish was sent back because the rice was practically uncooked; the ravioli with Gorgonzola, walnuts, and Cremini mushrooms was drowned in a soupy, foul-smelling Gorgonzola sauce; and the grilled tuna, though requested medium rare, was overcooked, with its tangerine dill sauce much too sweet. On top of all that, my poor nervous waiter at lunch seemed to have a hearing problem—it’s hard to hear over the din of those feeding socialites—and brought me all the wrong things, resulting in two dishes being returned to the kitchen and a third taken off the bill.
Until the kitchen and service match the quality at Vallone’s other restaurants, La Griglia is best enjoyed from a seat on a red leather banquette in the bar. Have a drink, nibble on one of the adequate but too-thick pizzas, and watch the scene.
Of Houston’s experiments with Tuscan cookery, La Mora is the most finished; the fare is delicious anytime you eat there. La Griglia has some catching up to do in the food department, but its flash and glamour are probably most in keeping with Houston tastes. Of all of these, the confident, laid-back Piccola Cucina, when it clicks, is the most exciting and authentic dining experience overall, although it remains to be seen whether Houstonians will take to its New Yorkish minimalism. In any case, Tuscan cooking, with its elemental open fires and basic ingredients, should kindle the public’s appetite.