You can't miss the lime-green outrageousness of the new Bellissimo Ristorante as you drive up North Main toward East 26th Street on the northern fringe of the Heights.
But be not afraid of the in-yer-face paint job on this former corner grocery: inside is a very likable new family-run restaurant that puts an oh-so-Houstonian Latin spin on its Italian menu. Oh, and did I mention that it's BYOB?
I tagged along with Ruthie Miller when she visited Bellissimo recently for her monthly Culture Map feature,"Where to Eat Right Now." We both were charmed by the welcoming service, the bold flavors and the reasonable prices.
Chef-owner Javier Machuca, whose hospitable sons work the small dining room here, spent 10 years working the stoves at La Strada and 13 years as head chef at Mia Bella downtown.
Now he's doing his own versions of Italian classics: pastas sparked with jalapeño or spicy chorizo; pizzas with a sauce base of avocado pesto; Gulf fish and shellfish done up in bright, punchy packages.
New Orleans developed its own style of Creolized Italian food in the 20th century, purveyed at such landmarks as the great Mosca's on the West Bank, Pascal's Manale and Mandina's. Houston has been in the process of doing the same for decades now, as local Italian restaurants have hired on Hispanic line cooks and the inevitable swapping and borrowing of flavors and ideas occurred, hastened by our city's longstanding love affair with Mexican food.
Now, when a chef like Javier Machuca sends out a dish of his Calle 25 fettucine, the locally made noodles tinted pale green with jalapeno, and more fresh green chiles chiming in, it seems only natural. Normally I shrink from pasta with chicken, but here the grilled chicken strips consort with smoky half-moons of sausage in a way that seems inevitable, with slivers of onion and sun dried tomato brightening up the creamy alfredo sauce.
Yes, there's more sauce than I normally like — the American way of pasta — but somehow in this brisk, jumpy context it all works.
So did a pasta I composed myself, using the menu's "create your own" option to pick linguini from column A, puttanesca sauce from column B, a red-peppery chorizo sausage from column C, and fresh mushrooms from column D.
I did it for a lark, but I ended up very pleased: both with the anchovy-tinged funk of the spicy puttanesca sauce and the good swift kick of the chorizo. Next time, I've vowed to go the create-your-own pizza route using one of the chef's half-dozen house pesto versions (I am not exaggerating here) as a base.
I was impressed with the quality of the shrimp here, both in a lively first course with garlic butter and tomato, and in a spinach pasta dish that didn't strike the high notes of the other two pasta dishes but was fresh and agreeable nonetheless.
And I had to smile at the grandma-quality meatballs, made so soft with breadcrumbs and finely ground meat that they practically melted as you ate them. They're the plush toys of the meatball world. They won't be for everyone, but I found them to be gentle, old-fashioned and very, very soothing.
Next time, I'll come armed with wine in a cooler pack. Until the beer and wine list the Machucas have applied for arrives, corkage is free.
So go now. Leave any fretful thoughts about Italian authenticity at home.
After word gets around about this place, it may be harder to get a seat in the tiny, unprepossessing dining room. Bellissimo may have been put together on a shoestring, but it's rich in warmth and a very Houstonian kind of exuberance.
(Bellissimo Ristorante, 6500 N. Main St., 832-618-1168. Open daily for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.)