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"I'm shocked by how well these things go together," I muttered over a martini.
My dining companion looked down at the pizzetta we were sharing at Caffe Bello's cheerful bar. "I'm not," he contemplated aloud. "I think the honey goes really nicely with the pear and the taleggio..."
Houston, TX 77006
Bresaola, pear and taleggio pizzetta: $11
Pappardelle al telefono: $8
Zuppa fresca: $9
Roasted red snapper: $27
Chicken-fried sirloin steak: $17
Sapori di mare: $19
322 Westheimer, 713-520-5599.
"Not that!" I interrupted, laughing. "Vallone and Montrose! I'm shocked by how well Vallone and Montrose go together." I pointed up to a giant Sailor Jerry-style heart that had been drawn on one of the elegant, five-foot-tall chalkboards that hung from one stuccoed wall. It had "Montrose" written in the center of it, an arrow piercing the chalk tattoo's flesh. Wine specials were written casually beneath it, the same Italian varietals you'd expect to find in a Vallone institution.
"Come on," I asked him. "Would you have expected this?"
It's the ultimate odd pair: the man who brought Houston the upper-crusty Tony's and the neighborhood that brought Houston the anarchistic West Fest street festival, coming together in a building that long represented the queer community in Montrose. And somehow, it all works.
Why Caffe Bello appeals to the Montrose aesthetic could be chalked up to two things.
Number one, it's Tony Vallone's son, Jeff, who runs the show here on Westheimer. A concrete disciple, the younger Vallone is just as likely to be seen skating with his friends at Cockfight Skateboards down at the Jamail Skatepark as he is working in the family business. A laid-back aesthetic follows here almost naturally, although it took a little while to settle in.
Number two, tattooed misfit chef Michael Dei Maggi is heading up the kitchen ("I'm having a fight with him right now," huffed a waiter to our table one night), his outlandishness tempered so far by the restraints of working in a restaurant that isn't his own, where the elder Vallone's no-nonsense attitude lingers despite his son's influence. It's a partnership that most didn't think would survive even one month, but seems to be — in fact — thriving despite the differences. But when it comes down to it, both Vallone and Dei Maggi are vested in one thing above all: good Italian food.
On my first visit, our waitresses strongly recommended the pappardelle al telefono, which she (and the menu) enthusiastically described as "Italian junk food." It's in simple dishes like this that Caffe Bello shines. A creamy, sweet San Marzano tomato sauce clings to wide ribbons of soft pasta, the entire concoction made irresistible by the addition of a fistful of burrata cheese. Melted into the sauce and clinging to each silky bite, this buttery version of mozzarella makes you wonder why standard mozzarella is ever used in the dish elsewhere. These piccolo plates are perfect for sharing as an appetizer, but are priced — and sized — for enjoying as an inexpensive dinner as well, while the grande dishes are closer in line to the price point you'd expect to find at a more traditional upscale restaurant.
On that first visit, the restaurant had only been operational for a few weeks, and it showed. The service was overly attentive and nearly suffocating, while confused-looking patrons who seemed to be more accustomed to Tony's or Ciao Bello wandered in only to find something quite different from what they were expecting. "This isn't your typical Vallone joint," I overheard one waiter whisper to a table of very finely dressed women who were staring, nonplussed, at the comparably value-priced menu.
Things have shaken out since then and settled into a comfortable groove. The waitstaff has a far more casual approach than they did on that first visit, although you're still never wanting for a water refill or more of the Slow Dough bread that's deposited on a sheet of butcher paper on your table. The music — a mix of artists like Nine Inch Nails, M.I.A., Weezer and Morrissey — complements the neighborhood vibe but doesn't force you to scream over the dinner table. The dual price points on the menu attract all crowds and take all comers.
And in only a matter of two months, Caffe Bello already seems to have attracted regulars like the older folks who come in for a casual early dinner, younger patrons who flock to the bar for happy hour or area residents who have started coming back for Sunday brunch (which isn't quite as loud as the old La Strada Sunday brunch...but give it time). It's happy hour, in fact, that's my favorite time to visit Caffe Bello.
The pizzettas at Caffe Bello are tiny miracles. They have thin, crispy crust that doesn't shatter and explode when you bite into it, as well as toppings that pair magically, such as beefy strips of bresaola mingling with tart pears, musky taleggio cheese and sweet honey, or the simple bianca pizza with mushrooms and the barest hint of spice. Normally, the pizzettas range from $6 for a simple margherita to $11 for the bresaola. I can handle $6, but $11 gets to be a little high for a seven-inch personal pizza, no matter how good it tastes.