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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
You know those days: A dark cloud follows you around at work, pouring misery onto everything and anything you do. When you return home, all you want to do is curl up in the comfort of cheese. I was in one of those moods the other day. I definitely didn't want to explore new frontiers of culinary experimentation. I wanted the safety and security of the familiar. In other words, I wanted to be mothered.
Then, I breathed a sigh of relief when I remembered where I was going: Josephine's Italian Ristorante.
At lunchtime Josephine's serves up Italian food cafeteria-style, but at night it transforms. Walking into Josephine's in the evening stirs up images of pampering Italian mamas who pinch your cheek and say you're looking too thin, so eat, eat, eat. There are red checkered tablecloths, paneled walls, candles held in place in the necks of Chianti bottles by years of accumulated wax. Mario Lanza, Tony Bennett and Luciano Pavarotti on the sound system. Ten seconds in, and I was already beginning to feel better. Then I opened the menu: Minestrone. Pizza. Eggplant Parmesan. Spaghetti and meatballs. Linguine and clam sauce. Veal scallopini. Not an arugula leaf on the entire menu. I knew I was home.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
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I started on the road to recovery with garlic bread ($2.50). But not just garlic bread -- Josephine's Special Garlic Bread, topped with either melted cheese or mushrooms. Mushrooms being a bit too highfalutin for the mood I was in, I went with the melted cheese; the combination of buttery, garlicky bread and rich melted cheeses did wonders for my disposition.
Next up was gumbo ($3.50 for a cup, $5.25 for a bowl). I know, I know, gumbo in an Italian restaurant? But with a menu description like this -- "a special Gumbo by Mama Frances cooked to perfection in her unusual way" -- how could I dream of passing it up? It turned out, in fact, to be an extraordinary gumbo. Inky black, loaded with steamed white rice, shrimp, real crabmeat, bay leaves, peppers and God knows what else, it had an incredible depth of flavor and a perfect balance of spice that can hold its own against the best New Orleans has to offer. (I called the restaurant the next day to find out where Frances Corona Mandola, she of the famous Mandola family and also mother of owner Josephine Storenski, learned to make such good gumbo, but to no avail. Probably just as well; some secrets should remain exactly that.)
After that, I wanted pasta, my favorite comfort food. (Clarification: It's my main dish comfort food; chocolate can, of course, cure anything.) But the question was, what kind of pasta? I opted for lasagna but then had another decision: vegetable, chicken or beef? The bird called my name, perhaps because it wasn't just layers of pasta, cheese and chicken, but chicken lasagna Alfredo ($10.25). This has to be the king of comfort foods -- layers of pasta, a herbaceous tomato sauce tinted pink with copious ricotta cheese, tender pieces of chicken breast, all topped with an extraordinarily rich, creamy, luxuriously cheesy Alfredo sauce. When the lasagna arrived, Pavarotti was halfway through "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot; my first bite coincided with his high note. I felt like I was floating on that note. Sure, the lasagna probably has 50,000 calories per square inch, but when you're talking mental health, who cares?
There are, of course, other dishes I can recommend, even if they can't hit the same notes as the lasagna. The stuffed artichoke Frances ($5.75) is filled with a heady, aromatic mixture of bread, Romano cheese and herbs, and makes a nice appetizer for the table to share (if no one is shy about eating with their fingers). If forks are mandatory with your crowd, try the seafood salad: fresh crabmeat, shrimp and greens tossed with a light, lemony vinaigrette. Perfectly delicious.
But then, so was the Chicken Damien ($11.25), a sautéed chicken breast topped with Josephine's special sauce (tomato, onion and sweet pepper) and sliced homemade sausage. It's served with a terrific side of fettuccine Alfredo. I was also impressed with two other plates: the evening's veal special ($12.95), served with an elegant lemon-butter cream sauce, and the Fettuccine Storenski ($12.95), with shrimp and crab in an intensively shrimp-flavored cream sauce.
I was already feeling pretty damn good by the time the dessert tray came around. The final course was sure to dispel any residual bad mood, but first a decision had to be made: cannoli or fudge cake? When it comes to my state of mind, I'd rather be safe than sorry, so I chose both ($2.50 each). Either is an unimpeachable choice. The crisp shell of the cannoli encloses a marvelous cream cheese and ricotta filling liberally studded with chocolate chips; traditional and delicious. My heart, however, belongs to the fabulously moist old-fashioned fudge cake, loaded with chocolate chips, a thin layer of marshmallow cream peeking out from underneath a half-inch of chocolate frosting. As I carefully scraped the last bits of frosting from my plate, I couldn't even remember what I'd been so grouchy about a mere hour ago.
So there I had it in one convenient restaurant, a recipe for the blues: special garlic bread, gumbo, chicken lasagna Alfredo and fudge cake. It's better than Prozac.
Josephine's Italian Ristorante, 1209 Caroline, (713)759-9323.