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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.
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.
"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.
I'm happiest at Caffe Bello when I'm enjoying one of these simple offerings. A chilled bowl of the vibrantly green zuppa fresca made with heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and tiny, plump shrimp pairs perfectly with watching the parade of people pour in and out. Young, old, gay, straight, hipsters, yuppies, T-shirts, T-strap heels: There is no demographic here, just people in search of good food.