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Pasta Tense

A tale of twin take-outs that were (almost) family

If you can extract the vinaigrette from its prison, though, it makes an apt summer dressing for one of Yapa's frozen ravioli -- perhaps the deep, dark wild-mushroom-and-spinach variety, which is perfect for a room-temperature treatment. It deserves better than the Tuscan tomato sauce -- perfectly adequate, but still just adequate -- it gets in Yapa's prepared-foods section. Better yet is a peppery, emphatic grilled-vegetable filling folded inside graceful red-pepper pasta that makes for ravioli so exuberant they require nothing more than a little olive oil in the way of adornment.

Do naked ravioli make you nervous? If so, toss them with a bare minimum of Yapa's ingenious corn-and-red-onion salsa, an instant local classic that packs some convincing heat. The fire-roasted tomato salsa, with its charred bottom notes, is almost as good. So why is the salsa verde so timid, and so inappropriately sweet? That's one of Yapa's little mysteries, as was one afternoon's crop of tough, sinewy broccoli rabe, deceptively gorgeous in the still life that is the prepared foods case. Likewise the dispiriting preponderance of browns in that still life: it seems unwise to take a chance on moussaka that resembles river sludge and grilled portobellos that look like something one might encounter in a cow pasture.

If Yapa is not quite ready to conquer Houston, much less the world, they're working on it. An encouraging air of ferment simmers through this sleekly contemporary room. Partner Mark Lewis, an ex-Yalie wrestler who went on to found a small San Francisco takeout chain, prowls the premises soliciting customer feedback and offering samples of new ideas; the bushy-tailed counter staff hands out tastes of tarragon-and-chutney-laced chicken salad or smoky, compelling cabbage-and-green-apple slaw as if they were the latest flavors at Baskin Robbins. Pleasant surprises rear their heads: last week's visitors got first crack at some lovely vegetarian summer rolls, their cabbage-and-bean-curd stuffing galvanized by a hint of red-peppery kim chee, their cool, rice-paper wrappers edged in dramatic black seaweed. With Yapa's honey-lime dressing, they're a Houston summer's answer to the sandwich -- not to mention a reason to keep coming back.

Miles away at Voss and San Felipe, Ferrari Fresh Pasta shows a less gung-ho face, a more Old World feel. It may be laid out much like Yapa, but with its rustic carts, warm colors and tumble of baskets, it has the feel of a country kitchen rather than a cutting-edge culinary lab. The food follows suit. While eclectic Yapa-esque dishes remain, the selection runs more to traditional Italian with Southwestern overtones; the emphasis falls on the delicate fresh pastas the Ferraris do well.

Some of the Yapa ideas serve the Ferraris better than others. Their grilled vegetables are every bit the equals of those across town, and their broccoli rabe, showered with golden garlic bits, is vastly more tender and appealing than its cross-town cousin. But the rotisserie squab here can be as dry as the desert, its glossy good looks and lemony-winy skin notwithstanding. The fire-roasted peppers have all the charm of brine-packed, processed whole pimentos. And the grilled portobello mushrooms may look prettier than Yapa's, but fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves and a cap of sun-dried tomato cannot cancel out the off-putting bitterness of this pricey faux-lasagna.

Better to take home one of Ferrari's real lasagnas, which display a better balance of pasta to filling than do Yapa's gooier ones. Ferrari's Southwestern chicken lasagna is terrific, from its thin sheets of jalapeno-cilantro noodles (here, at last, are flavored pastas that actually taste like something) to its discreetly handled spicy tomato sauce and equally discreet cheeses. Twenty-five minutes in a 350-degree oven, or a little more if the lasagna is from the frozen case as opposed to the fresh case, and you're in business.

The other good bets here are a highly comforting eggplant Parmesan that heats up nicely, and an adventurous salad of Southwestern ravioli filled with pureed red beans. Surprise: it really works, especially tossed together with corn, scallion, cilantro and diced tomato for an effect that is at once tart and hot, with small punctuation marks of natural vegetable sweetness.

Other items fall into the ambivalent zone. Elegantly thin goat-cheese manicotti are so pungently flavored that they don't wear well -- particularly when an irrelevant and strangely sour marinara is added to their light pesto glaze. A salad of orzo pasta, feta cheese and sun-dried tomato has a similar, powerfully strong affect. Dusky wild-mushroom ravioli come cloaked, like Yapa's, in a standard tomato sauce that isn't worthy of them. And the desserts, which run to sliced cheesecakes, don't exhibit the take-me-home visual appeal that radiates from Yapa's Marilyn Descours pastries.

Neither does Yapa's fierce ambition radiate from this homey, countrified room. The selection at Ferrari is more limited, and more erratic: on any given day, there are liable to be just a few sauces, let alone the multitudinous relishes, dressings, soups and world-beat condiments that Yapa feels obliged to present. Maybe that particular filled pasta you had your heart set on will be available; maybe it won't. Even the lunches dispensed from Ferrari's corner counter seem catch-as-catch can, regardless of what the small chalkboard menu may say. A chicken-salad sandwich? Sorry, the chef hasn't made any more yet; one customer ordered two of them, so we ran out. How about that great-sounding slaw? Out of that, too.

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