By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
During happy hour, however, those same pizzettas are all $4. It's the best time to enjoy them, too, over a glass of wine and a simple wooden cutting board. No utensils, no fuss, just great food and wine. That's a truly happy hour, even if there are a few things that get lost in translation.
Caffe Bello also offers "mini"-tinis for $3.95, which isn't as good a deal as the $1 martinis that Voice offers on Wednesdays, but makes up for it with a bit of cheek.
"What flavor do you want?" asked the jovial bartender one recent evening after I ordered a mini-tini.
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.
"Flavor?" I responded, genuinely confused. "Martinis come in flavors?"
"Yeah, what flavor do you want?" he shot back. He seemed to have become annoyed with me in the span of five seconds. We stared at each other, a moment of mutual incomprehension.
I looked at my dining companion, who was equally at a loss. "Is gin a flavor?" I asked to no one in particular.
"I'll come back to you two," he half-snapped as he went to tend the rest of his busy bar.
When he did come back, it was with two miniature shakers filled with martinis that he'd made from honey-mango-melon flavored Rain vodka and a bit of grapefruit juice, enough for two mini glasses' worth of martinis each. They were great. And I was flummoxed, enjoying these tarted-up faux martinis in spite of myself. Complimenting the bartender on the martinis, we all relaxed considerably. I gave in and reveled in the silliness of them, which is all you can really do sometimes.
That same silliness extends to several areas that I wish it didn't, namely the decor. A comment on a blog post that I wrote about Caffe Bello when it first opened said, in part, that the "...inside looks like a scene out of the '90s." Anonymous Commenter No. 1,273 was sadly correct, which is a shame. The building itself is beautiful, all high ceilings and broad windows and spiral staircases. But the stucco on the walls, the stuffy-looking chairs and even the rugs on the floor all scream "unintentionally retro."
That aesthetic thankfully doesn't extend to the upstairs portion of the restaurant, which is my favorite area. The patio has been completely screened in and air-conditioned, and filled with much more comfortable lounge-type furniture, resulting in one of the finest spots in Houston to watch the sunset over dinner.
My dining companion couldn't stop talking about it, even after we'd left one evening and headed elsewhere for drinks. "Those windows are just perfect," he mused. "And think about the fall, when they'll be able to open the screens!" Autumn on Caffe Bello's patio will be a sight to behold, that's certain.
What isn't certain is how the cuisine will continue to hold up, despite brilliant dishes like the pappardelle al telefono, juicy snapper in an exquisite shrimp-ragu sauce that became a battlefield one evening as we squared off over who would get the last bite, or the delicate orecchiette topped simply with breadcrumbs, slightly bitter rapini, ruby tomatoes and firecracker bites of red pepper. It's these basics — these unfettered and unfussy dishes — that Caffe Bello already has down to a fine art.
It's the more extravagant dishes that are worrisome.
A mixed fish grill one evening came with what looked like the nub ends of salmon and snapper, unwanted and used here, along with one piece of shrimp, one scallop and one tiny piece of calamari. Both pieces of fish were almost too salty to eat, while the shrimp and the scallop had gone cold. For $24, it's a vastly overpriced and underconstructed dish that's shockingly out of place on a menu that offers that wonderful pappardelle for $8 or a linguini dish filled with seafood that's large enough for two to share at $19. Yes, the cernia — that ragu-ringed red snapper dish — is $27, but the size of the fish filet and the pitch-perfect sauce filled with shrimp back the price up to the dollar.
Chicken-fried sirloin steak here is a bargain, with more than enough for sharing, but it's completely overpowered by an embarrassment of riches: too much truffle oil. The delicate sirloin had been pounded thin and fried like a milanesa, and would have likely been divine left to its own devices. Likewise, the mashed potatoes had that perfect texture that comes from putting them through a ricer and being quite generous with the butter and cream. But the white gravy saturated with truffle oil and the truffle oil in the potatoes was simply overkill. A little bit of the stuff goes a very long way, especially when the components are so good on their own. Lily, meet gilt.
Each successive dessert here has been an exercise in disappointment, too. A mezzanote trio covered with an avalanche of powdered sugar, all lacquered cherries and tough, saccharine cannoli, was too awful even to contemplate finishing; a very boring panna cotta; a threesome of Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches that tasted like Sweet 'N Low and — in the case of the strawberry ice cream, was disturbingly close to the neon-pink sugar-substitute packet in color. I simply don't know why Caffe Bello is offering these leaden travesties on the same menu as the delicate pizzettas and the delightful fritto misto, brightly colored and flavored with pepperoncinis and Peppadews.