A Roma Therapy

Collina's pint-size Italian cafe smells like home

Dessert? Formidable brownies dusted with confectioners' sugar. Or a surprise like one night's baked Granny Smith apple sheathed in a crunch of brown sugar and moored in a caramel-syrup pool.

The level of solicitude here is disarming. Whether splitting orders, composing half-and-half pizzas, or offering lemonade refills, dough-making trivia and complimentary glasses of jug wine ("We can serve it, we just can't sell it"), the Hills and their staff manage to make their patrons feel eminently cared for. Small wonder that Collina's quirks and bobbles seem so forgivable. Styrofoam cups, comically mismatched chairs, misbegotten eggplant, ceiling fans struggling against warm spells in the small, spartan dining room... what of them? There is opera on the sound system and homey food on the table. There is conviviality and yeast in the air.

This miniature idyll can't last. Reviews and word of mouth and newcomers will intervene. The regulars sense it. "Everyone says they should expand," volunteers Ms. China Garden as she waits for her pizza. Her voice is tinged with ambivalence. An unspoken assumption hangs in the air -- we are Houstonians, therefore we grow. The unspoken question is this: having grown, will Collina's still be Collina's?

Collina's Italian Cafe, 3933 Richmond, 621-8844.

12-inch Pizza Margherita, $7.50;
house salad, $2.25;
lasagne, $5.95;
focaccia, $1.50.

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