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The osso buco at Nino's on West Dallas towered over the plate. It looked like a red lava-covered meat volcano rising from a sea of pasta. Sticking out of the crater in the top, a marrow spoon protruded.
I cut away a chunk of veal from the shank bone. It was extremely moist and falling-apart tender. I twirled up some of the cappellini (angel hair pasta) that surrounded the shank with a little of the meat and sauce. The combination was absolutely spectacular.
Then, with the tall skinny spoon, I coaxed a big dark luscious clump of marrow out of the middle of the bone. Osso buco means "pierced bone" in Italian, and the marrow bone is what the dish is all about. I ate some fatty marrow on the crusty Italian bread I found in the bread basket. I gave some to my lunch mate, Paul Galvani, and then I ate the rest with the pasta. There was plenty to go around. It was the best osso buco I've had in Houston, and it was actually just last night's leftovers.
2817 W. Dallas
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
Linguine pescatore: $16.95
Red snapper: $24.95
Veal chop: $38.95
Osso buco isn't on the menu at Nino's, but it's always the dinner special on Thursdays. If there is any left over, you can get it for lunch on Friday like I did. At $29, it's not exactly a cheap lunch, but it's a hell of a bargain for a primo chunk of osso buco.
On Thursday night, the osso buco is served with the traditional risotto. The Friday lunch special came with cappellini. So we asked for risotto on the side, just to sample some. Galvani, who is the marketing director for Houston rice giant Riviana Foods, commented that the risotto wasn't firm in the middle; it tasted a little gloppy.
What a lot of Houston restaurants call risotto is plain white rice with some additives. When we asked the waiter at Nino's what kind of rice they used, he went to the kitchen and came back with a bag of super-premium Italian Arborio. So that wasn't the problem. Maybe the risotto was left over from last night. I was glad I was eating the pasta.
I was also delighted with Nino's spectacular bread basket. Unable to choose between the focaccia, the slices of rustic bread, the bread sticks and all the other varieties, I simply ate them all. And then I sent the basket back for a refill. The bread here comes with a plate of minced olives and other marinated vegetables in a deep puddle of extra virgin olive oil. You eat the bread while sopping up the oily goodies.
The zuppa di pesce that my lunch mate ordered was a magnificent fish stock with some watery shrimp and mussels in it. Galvani observed that the shrimp didn't pick up any of the color or flavor of the soup. He speculated that they had been boiled or steamed separately and were added when the dish was ordered. It's a practical shortcut that makes for a second-rate soup.
It was a beautiful day, so we finished our lunch on Nino's patio with espressos and ice cream at an outdoor table beside the gelato cart.
The Mandola family converted a turn-of-the-century grocery building here into Nino's restaurant exactly 30 years ago, in 1977. Over time, they bought up most of the block on West Dallas Street between Montrose and Waugh and added two sister restaurants, Vincent's and Grappino di Nino. Most of that area is devoted to the parking lot. But the complex formed by the three restaurants is one of the most idyllic dining destinations in the city.
Nino's remains the family's flagship restaurant. With its terrazzo floors, antique furnishings, newly renovated bar and wood-burning pizza oven, Nino's has long been considered one of Houston's best trattorias. The service is friendly and efficient, and the wait staff is well-informed.
Vincent's was created as a more casual cafe to take care of the overflow from Nino's. But Vincent's became famous in its own right for its specialty, lemon-and-garlic rotisserie chicken. Unfortunately, the high-pressure wait staff at Vincent's pushes bottled water and other extras like a bunch of used car salesmen on commission.
Grappino di Nino started out as a bar and outdoor patio where you could linger over espresso and an after-dinner drink. The landscaper who created the maze of brick patios, courtyards and outdoor tables that connect the restaurants has won awards for his design. The highlight of the exterior is the dramatically lit garden, romantic fountain and cozy arbor of Grappino di Nino with its dozens of outdoor tables. It is one of the most beautiful al fresco dining spots in the city, and it's open late. The Mandola family has responded to the public's enthusiasm to Grappino di Nino by introducing live music on the patio and expanding the menu. You can now get appetizers, miniature pizzas and a few entrées outside.
The wine list at Nino's is short, boring and old-school. But there is a great selection of grappas. The first time I had dinner at Nino's, I finished the meal off with an aromatic Moscato grappa and an espresso at an outdoor table at Grappino's while I listened to a odd rendition of "Imagine" performed by a sincere young man with an acoustic guitar. It was a pleasant end to an otherwise mediocre meal.