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Inside the attractive wicker basket, wrapped in a lovely linen napkin, was a limp-crusted loaf of white bread with all the character of a hamburger bun. The mixed greens were so drenched in balsamic dressing that the dish put before me seemed to contain a soup rather than a salad. And my daughter's spaghetti and meatballs came in a puddle of water that she had to bail out of the bottom of her plate with a tablespoon.
"Ciao Down!" is the slogan of Terra Bosco's Italian Restaurant on Westheimer. The idiotic bilingual pun accurately reflects the sensibilities of what may be the most clueless Italian restaurant in the city. The first time I ate here, the food was so bad, I decided to do the place a favor and not write a review. The restaurant was nearly empty, and I doubted it would remain open long enough for me to get something into print.
But I can't ignore the place anymore, because Terra Bosco's was recently named one of the top ten new restaurants in the state by Texas Monthly. The magazine's restaurant critic, Patricia Sharpe, included only new restaurants in her annual roundup, which she calls "Where to Eat Now." Why on earth would she rank Terra Bosco's fourth in the state in this category? In an interview on the Texas Monthly Web site, Sharpe credits the magazine's Houston reviewers with keeping her in touch with the local scene. Then she adds, "I have to say that we also depend heavily on press releases from the restaurants."
Her reliance on press releases might explain why Sharpe raved about the Riviera Grill's relocation to the Sam Houston Hotel in last year's roundup. The restaurant was trashed by both the Chronicle and the Press, after which the chef departed and the name of the restaurant was changed. But granted, they did serve up a great press release. And in the 2002 version of "Where to Eat Now," Texas Monthly enthused about another awful restaurant that received scathing reviews from both Houston newspapers and quickly went out of business. "The most sizzling hot spot in Houston is Ling and Javier," wrote Sharpe.
Can this lady pick 'em, or what?
Evidently, if a restaurant seems stylish enough, Texas Monthly's reviewer can overlook other little problems like, say, wretched cooking. Sure enough, Terra Bosco's fits the pattern. The lighting, color selections and overall design of the restaurant are excellent. Okay, the paintings of Italian scenes hanging on the walls may be a little ludicrous -- I particularly like the one with the enormous wine glass and the Chianti bottle that floats above the surface of the table. But the hordes of Texas Monthly readers who have suddenly descended on the restaurant probably aren't art critics. Hopefully, they aren't very particular about their Italian food, either.
Terra Bosco's red sauce may be the worst I've ever tasted. If I had to guess the chef's secret recipe for this strawberry jamlike goop, I'd say he dumped canned tomatoes in a mixer with a bag of sugar and called it a day. Prego, Progresso, Ragú, Newman's Own -- any one of the countless varieties of Italian red sauce available in the average supermarket would be a huge improvement over this.
And, of course, Terra Bosco's chef, Richard White, slathers the red menace all over everything he cooks. My daughter's spaghetti and meatball dinner consisted of the aforementioned pasta-in-a-puddle topped with the sweet red goo and two giant meatballs. The meatballs were made of finely ground meat mixed with some sort of bland breading. The result was a flavorless brown lump. According to a press release from the restaurant, "Richard White's secret 16-ingredient meatballs have made quite an impression, as has the lasagna (anything with the red sauce really)." A brick dropped from a six-story building makes quite an impression, too. But don't let your face get in the way.
Every time I've seen him, chef White has been wearing a bandanna rolled up and tied around his head. You can observe him and his helpers working in the kitchen, which is elevated and open so customers can watch the action. Evidently, the bandanna serves as some sort of uniform, as several of the kitchen workers also wear the same silly-looking headgear. Brandishing their whisks and spatulas in their white jackets and colorful sweatbands, they look like a band of sissified pirates.
On my second visit, I dragged fellow food writer Paul Galvani along to confirm that it wasn't just me. Paul grew up in an Italian family and is adept at Italian cookery. The salads were better on this visit. And an order of red snapper with crabmeat and grilled oyster mushrooms turned out to be the first decent dish I'd sampled at Terra Bosco's. Unfortunately, it was served with a side of pasta topped with the ubiquitous red sauce. Paul liked the fish but refused to eat more than two bites of the pasta. He pronounced it awful.
I hoped to sample a different pasta sauce by ordering linguine puttanesca. Puttanesca means "slutty" in Italian. The spicy sauce is made with lots of hot red pepper and anchovies, as well as capers, olives and garlic. Legend has it that the dish was named for Roman whores who loved the sauce because the spiciness kept them warm at night. Terra Bosco's puttanesca sauce is made by throwing some capers and olives in the bad red sauce. Maybe there was a dash of anchovies and hot red peppers in there too, but you couldn't taste anything through the cloying sweetness.
We also sampled the only other marginally edible dish on the menu, a pizza topped with roasted red pepper puree, sautéed spinach, ham and Brie cheese. It's not really a pizza. It's a piece of foccaccia bread that's been grilled on both sides. It's one of the best things on the menu, which isn't saying much.
My third and final visit was on a Saturday night, and the restaurant was so packed we had to wait 30 minutes for a table. While the salads weren't overdressed this time, the mixed greens in the house salad were so old, they were turning slimy and black along the edges. An appetizer of otherwise acceptable Italian sausage and peppers was rendered inedible by a generous slopping of the red stuff. Likewise, the spinach cannelloni, thin sheets of green pasta rolled around a stuffing of cheese, might have been okay were they not obscured by the red tide. The chicken romano -- an entrée of boneless, skinless chicken breast topped with artichoke hearts and served with fresh vegetables and pasta with you-guessed-it sauce -- was mind-numbingly dull. It reminded me of something you might get on a LuAnn platter at Luby's. My dining companion cursed me for bringing her along.
This is the fourth-best new restaurant in the state? Sorry, I don't think so. Terra Bosco's might possibly beat out the all-fondue, all-the-time Melting Pot for the title of fourth-best restaurant in the Briargrove Shopping Center. But I doubt it.