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Sweet Home Italian

There's nothing fancy at Tutto Bene. It's simply good.

Said sauce shows up in the lasagna al'amatriciana (it's worth asking for if it's not on the menu when you visit). Big rounds of sweetish Italian sausage compete with the smoky-spicy sauce for your taste buds' attention. Which wins? Both. I'm sure there were cheeses and pasta in there, too, but they were merely supporting players.

Despite its adherence to homely virtues, food snobs need not avoid Tutto Bene. When required, the restaurant can deliver sophistication and delicacy. The ziti andrea, for example -- pasta pipelets modestly tossed with fleshy bites of seared salmon, toothy sun-dried tomatoes, sunny olive oil and sharp Parmesan -- is a convincing example of an understated, spa-simple pasta dish. The Canadian mussels -- steamed to memorable tenderness in their shells and served in a puddle of garlicky lobster bisque (the absence of cream in the bisque is noteworthy and, here, highly apropos) -- are also a model of refinement and restraint. There is an artfulness to how these bivalves appear casually jumbled on their plate.

The link between Tutto Bene's sophistication and hominess may well be found in the special of stuffed pork loin. Wrapped around a nutty and herby stuffing of bread crumbs and Italian sausage, it comes anointed with a pomegranate sauce that adds reserved sweetness. A vegetable risotto was yummily sticky, and sugar snap peas were the perfect choice for the requisite green vegetable. "Is this the sort of meal Italian families get served for Sunday dinner?" I wondered enviously.

If they end their meal with Tutto Bene's dessert offerings, though, I don't envy them. Dessert here is a mild-mannered event. Yes, everything is fresh and well-prepared, but nothing bowls me over. Where is the dessert equivalent of that gutsy al'amatriciana sauce, I wonder? Where is the unadulteratedly chocolate selection?

Houston's restaurant scene has changed, and changed again, since Andrew Rebori first surveyed the landscape in 1987. Modest Italian places aren't as rare as they once were. Still, when upscale Italian establishments continue to crop up on what seems like a daily basis, there's more room than ever for an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood trattoria. At Tutto Bene, the sense that you're hanging out in a neighbor's home is sometimes abetted by a too loud duet of accordion player and opera singer, who appear on certain nights and whose repertoire seems to consist primarily of Broadway tunes. But if you didn't have to put up with eccentricities, it wouldn't really feel like home, would it?

Tutto Bene, 4618 Feagan, 864-0209.

Tutto Bene: toasted ravioli, $3.95; lasagna al'amatriciana, $7.99; stuffed pork loin, $12.99; Canadian mussels $4.99 (for 12 or so) or $9.99 (for 20 or so).

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