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If you think pasta just isn't pasta unless it's served in a bowl big enough to bathe a small child in, if a serving of beef just doesn't cut it unless it hangs over the sides of the plate, you need to take your ample waistline somewhere besides Osteria D'Aldo, where big delicious ideas are served in small portions.
The waitstaff at Osteria D'Aldo, perhaps as a result of diner complaints, has begun to describe its servings as "appetizer size," making it something of an Italian version of a tapas restaurant. Perhaps they shouldn't be so defensive about their plates. After all, if you follow a logical progression of antipasti, salad or soup, entrée and dessert, you won't walk away from the place hungry, I guarantee it. In fact, I bet you'll leave with the same feeling I did: utter satisfaction.
You enter the restaurant through a thick wooden door, a remnant of a 350-year-old castle that's apparently even draftier now, into a re-creation of a medieval wine cellar. I'm no expert on medieval wine cellars, but this place looks great: lots of stone and wood, a sort of Romanesque ceiling, walls lined with wine bottles (they offer more than 80 wines by the glass) and enough garlic hanging from doorways and rafters to frighten away any number of vampires.
The downtown eatery is the latest from Aldo Elsharif, owner/chef of the fabulous (and fabulously expensive) Aldo's Dining Con Amore at 219 Westheimer. Here, however, Aldo and executive chef Jacob McQueen have put together a menu on which no item costs more than $10, quite a trick considering how fresh and wonderful everything I sampled was.
Start with an appetizer (or two). The assorted stuffed fried olives ($3) is a nice starter for the table to share. Greek olives are pitted, stuffed (some with cheese, others with seafood or meat), breaded and fried. The combination of crispy breading, warm, slightly salty olive and rich filling is a great wake-up call to the taste buds.
Even better is the bruschetta, four crusty toasted bread slices slathered with various toppings ($4). I loved the fagioli topping, tender white beans marinated in olive oil and garlic, with little bits of dried fruit adding a sweet accent, but I thought the caponata was miraculous. In it, the eggplant is cooked down almost to the consistency of a rich jam and flavored with a perfect balance of sweet and sour.
If you feel like something a bit more substantial, and have no compunctions about raw meat, try the carpaccio ($6). Paper-thin slices of prime fillet are sauced with extra-virgin olive oil, shredded Parmesan and arugula, ready to be eaten on top of any of Osteria's marvelous breads or as is. Terrific either way.
Given a choice between soup or salad, I always opt for soup, and given the quality of the soup of the day ($3) the night I tried it, I'm glad I did. It was a cream of tomato basil, warm and rich, deeply flavored and not totally pureed, so it still had some texture to it. Floating on top was one large, perfect basil leaf. With the addition of some freshly grated nutty Parmesan, the soup was as perfect as any diner can expect.
Out of the four pastas listed on the menu, I tried three ($7 each), and I am hard-pressed to say which of them I enjoyed the most. The large ravioli came three to an order. The perfectly cooked, slightly chewy homemade pasta enclosed a coarse veal stuffing, which luxuriated in a marvelous roasted tomato and garlic puree, light and rich and altogether delicious. The tortellini, stained black from the squid ink that gives them a hauntingly oceanic flavor, were stuffed with seafood and swam in a rich sherry cream sauce. I'm not sure how traditional sherry is in the Italian kitchen, but this dish certainly reached an extremely high level of yum.
If you're looking for an entrée-size portion of pasta, I'd suggest the bucatini, a sort of thick, hollow spaghetti. It's the largest serving of the pastas and is topped with a light, slightly spicy seafood tomato sauce, loaded with mussels and clams (still in their respective shells) as well as tender, sweet baby octopuses. The sauce was so light, in fact, that it needed a touch of salt to wake up its flavors. But even adding a bit of spice was a pleasure, since instead of the traditional salt shaker, the table was graced with a grinder filled with sea salt. It almost made me wish the other dishes hadn't been so perfectly seasoned, so that I could have used it more.
The beef-eaters among you should try the Filette Borgonzo ($10). It's a small fillet flavored with just enough Gorgonzola, brandy and herbs to accentuate but not overwhelm the dish's tender beefiness. As good as the Filette Borgonzo is, however, my heart belongs to the veal tenderloin ($10). One bite of the juicy, perfectly cooked tennis-ball-size fillet, and I was a goner, lost in the delirious combination of veal, foie gras, truffle oil and bitter frisée.
If you prefer shrimp, you'll want to sample the Shrimp Umberto ($10). The waiter informed me that they just might be the best shrimp you ever put between your lips. He was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. The shrimp, lightly coated with bread crumbs and quickly sautéed, arrive in an ideal white wine sauce, with just a touch of sage and shallots. I confess to using a spoon so I wouldn't miss a drop.