Caffe Bello, the 3-month-old latest from celebrated Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone, was mostly empty on a Friday night in mid-October. I sat at the bar, fending off the chatty bartender who was telling me how the TABC had nixed an effort to revive the famously Dionysian brunch tradition of La Strada, the former occupant of this space on Westheimer.
“They said we couldn’t do bottomless mimosas and bellinis anymore,” he told me regretfully, and for a moment, I was regretful myself, remembering the days when I would drive by on Sundays and see revelers practically hanging from La Strada’s second-floor balcony. I never attended one of those brunches, having formed a bad opinion of La Strada’s food, but I liked knowing the festivities rolled on in louche Montrose tradition. They were part of the fabric of Houston life.
That was then, and this is now. Vallone and his son, Jeff, have glassed in that upstairs dining terrace and turned the place into a casual, no-frills Italian eatery with a pared-back menu and a talented bad-boy chef — Michael dei Maggi of Rockwood Room and Max’s Wine Dive fame. They are wooing the Montrose crowds that keep nearby restaurants Dolce Vita, Poscol and Indika jumping on weekend nights.
So where were they? I wondered, both on that Friday evening and on two different weeknights when the dining room stood half-full. While I didn’t like Caffe Bello’s sibling restaurant, Ciao Bello, in its pre-dei-Maggi incarnation, the food at Caffe Bello can be pretty good. And the idiosyncratic little pizzettas — six of which occupy their own separate place of honor on the menu — are a genuine delight, reason enough for a visit.
The prices aren’t grievous. The service seems willing, if tending to the overly familiar. The wine list offers decent-enough possibilities and the occasional novel treat, such as the Vallone label white Nero D’Avola, full of fruit and minerals and faintly, fashionably tinged with orange.
The redone brick interior certainly doesn’t deliver the “edgy” feel touted on Caffe Bello’s website, but the long, narrow room is comfortable enough and immediately likable once a server plops down some dense, chewy bread and twiggy breadsticks on the big square of white butcher paper that centers each unclad table.
You’ll want to dip these offerings into a little dish of herbed olive oil while you await the arrival of your individual pizzetta. And, yes, you’ll be having one, if you’re smart. These irregular pies are about the size of a dinner plate, and they are so light and crackly and delicate of crust they don’t resemble pizza so much as some ethereal form of embellished flatbread.
Cast your purist pizza-crust aesthetic aside and just give in to such elemental toppings as shaved, not-too-salty prosciutto and cheese-gilded tomato sliced as thin as stained glass. A final flourish of nicely bitter arugula leaves would be even better with a faintly tart dressing or a spritz of lemon to make all the flavors jump. Next time I’ll ask for a wedge of lemon because this is a light entree or a snack I can see myself wanting at all sorts of hours of the day or night.
Even better was the pizzetta strewn with rich, chewy curls of oxtail, along with mushrooms, gentle Gorgonzola Dolce and just enough balsamic-marinated onion to define the flavors. On another evening, the pizzetta of clams plus a bit of rapini and suave, flaky anchovy fillets would have been great but for some scorching on the edges and an overload of gooey cheese.
I was dubious about the pizzetta with dark, intense slivers of air-dried beef (bresaola), taleggio cheese and Italian truffle honey, fearing the truffle would taste fakey, in the manner of truffle oil But, surprise: the honey — faintly imbued with real black truffle, not its chemical simulacrum — was subtle. The pizza itself, while sweet, had enough savory tones to keep me interested. It was so good I ended up wishing I had ordered it for dessert. (It would make a fine one. And a sensible one. More on that later.)
Below the pizzetta section of the menu, things seem less consistent. I found the small plates of salads and pastas mostly good, although the three pastas are more predictable than I would have expected and include none of the stuffed pastas that Vallone restaurants often do so well.
The Bolognese sauce, while perfectly fine, could not compare in its brash tomatoey quality with Lynette Hawkins’ nuanced version at Giacomo’s, farther down Westheimer.
Pappardelle al Telefono, which the menu describes as “Italian junk food,” had a frisky, red-pepper bite to its pureed tomato sauce, and I loved the ungainly al dente flaps of house-made pasta that anchored the dish. Still, I was left wondering why you would blanket such an ephemeral cheese as burrata with such a punchy sauce, thereby cancelling out its very essence.
I wondered the same thing when I tasted the autumnal warm salad of roasted butternut squash and shiitake mushrooms with a blob of pillowy burrata on top. The flavors, picked out by balsamic, were marvelous (I could imagine this as the best stuffed-squash filling ever devised), but the burrata that, according to its menu billing, should have starred in the dish was relegated to a supporting role. I think some remarketing of the dish may be in order.
I have nothing but praise to offer for the immaculate Pulcinella salad of frisee and arugula with a Parmesan vinaigrette. The slightly lemony, almost floral quality of the dressing entranced me, and the candied-nut component that is so often overdone these days proved to be hazelnuts with a minimal sugar crackle. Nicely done.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, was the “Grani Misti,” or “Mixed Grains,” which turned out to be a sprightly molded salad of lentils, barley and finely minced beet, held together by another subtly lemony dressing and showered with very fresh arugula leaves. Vegetarians, take note: this would make a fine light entree or lunch.
I wish I had better to report of the entrees here, but they failed to live up to the smaller plates. Lamb Shank Piccante had a fine bright harissa heat to its tomatoey sauce, and the meat was as tender as osso buco (on which the preparation seems based) should be. But the grounding of three-cheese polenta was a tepid, stiff sludge, and the cheese maven with me was stymied when I asked her what she thought the three cheeses were. They did not announce themselves with clarity.
Nor did a lukewarm braise of rabbit with cannelini beans and sausage ragu ring any bells at my table. The rabbit leg, as so often seems to be the case, was on the dry side; and the bean-and-sausage jumble, with a few slices of rabbit breast tucked in, did not demand to be eaten to the last bite.
And alas, my dessert was dreadful. The cannoli had one of those super-sweet ricotta fillings I have come to dread, absent any grace or delicacy. Yet if I had ordered one of those bresaola pizettas, with the taleggio and truffled honey, I would have gone home content.
As it was, I departed with a curious sense of absence at the heart of this new restaurant. It suffers from having an old-fashioned hidden kitchen; Dei Maggi is a showman who loves an audience, and over three visits I never saw hide nor hair of him in the dining room.
I guess I’ll have to wait and see on this one — and consume a lot of pizzettas while I’m doing it.