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Diner's Notebook

Swan Song

Random Thought: It never fails to amuse me how a restaurant can underwhelm me on the food front and still manage to endear itself. Tutto Bene in the Heights -- oh, okay all you jingoists, in the obscure Old West End -- is a prime example. The many forms of pasta in which this familial place traffics are boiled well past al dente ("mushy" would not be an exaggerated description). The salads can be deliriously over-vinegared. The estimable meatballs can arrive wearing a hardened crust, as if they had been microwaved into submission. The eggplant Parmesan doesn't quite hang together.

So why do I have a soft spot for the place? It has something to do with the elderly uniformed woman who sees you safely to your car, and the evocative aroma of tomato sauce, and the twinkle-lit shadowiness of the retrograde interior, which could have emerged straight out of the fifties. It has something to do with the homey minestrone and the red-peppery zest of the Amatriciana sauce that chimes in with pesto on the Florentine cannelloni, a fine specimen of goop.

Most of all, my affection springs from the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spaghetti extravaganza dubbed the Molto Bene combination, which involves meat sauce, mushrooms, meatballs and Italian sausage. Did I leave anything out? Not only does this dish eliminate painful decision making, it can (when the meatballs and the noodles are in good shape) be hugely satisfying. It's the closest thing to a replacement for Joe Matranga's sainted spaghetti that I've found --and that may be the real secret of my irrational attraction.

The mind of a diner can move in mysterious ways.
Tutto Bene, 4618 Feagan, 864-0209.

This is my final column for the Houston Press, and to say I feel ambivalent about the occasion would be an understatement. I'm looking forward to joining Conde Nast's resurrected House & Garden next month as their food writer; before the first issue is published in September of 1996, there are places to go and things to eat.

At the same time, I'll miss the Houston restaurant beat, which has always struck me as an endlessly fascinating arena in which to observe the life of the city. Restaurants are a profoundly urban institution, and city dwellers reveal themselves not only through what they eat, but also where they eat it: with whom, at what prices, with what trappings and shared assumptions attached.

At some level I feel I've never been more in tune with my hometown than during the last two years, driving the far suburban strips in search of the next good thing; keeping an eye out for the unfolding comedy of manners; reveling in the way ingredients and cooking techniques cross-pollinate long before ideas do. Houston is rare among American cities in that it has its own distinctive cuisine, and in my more optimistic moments I think of that multifaceted hybrid -- with its Vietnamese fajitas and mesquite-grilled catfish con salsa verde -- as a metaphor for what the city could become.

I also think of it as lots of primal fun. For my money, Houston is one of the great unsung food meccas of the Western hemisphere, which is why I'm happy that I won't be moving out of town; the barbecue and Mexican-food deficiencies I would suffer are too awful to contemplate. I'll learn to live with my writerly regrets -- all those Thai and Ethiopian places I meant to get to! -- but I will remain well fed and vastly entertained, and I trust that Press readers will, too. -- Alison Cook

 
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