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Nundini: Straight from the Old Country

Italian kitchen, still lacking its sea legs, shows real promise.

 Get a feel for Nundini's "simpatico ambience" in our slideshow.

As you enter Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar on North Shepherd, just above the Katy Freeway, you are greeted by a wall of imported Italian pastas with wonderfully politically incorrect names like strozzapreti (priest stranglers) and anelli d'Africa (African rings, a pasta shape that Americans know from eating SpaghettiOs, but used traditionally in Italy to make baked pasta pies, like the Sicilian timballo di anelli alla palermitana).

As your gaze wanders to the right, you notice that there's a deli case filled with real-deal Italian cheeses: mozzarella di bufala (buffalo's milk mozzarella from Campania), burrata (the cream-filled plastic cheese from Apulia), Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, Grana Padano...In the "library" in the back of the delicatessen, there are imported Italian cookies, Italian jams, Italian extra-virgin olive oils — all neatly presented in sharp rows, just like in the "old country."

You can't lose with the white pizza with bresaola.
Allison McPhail
You can't lose with the white pizza with bresaola.

Location Info

Map

Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar

500 N. Shepherd
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Heights

Details

Grocery hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Restaurant hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Spaghetti Pomodoro Fresco e Basilico: $11
White Pizza with Bresaola: $13
Pizza Margherita: $11
Fritto Misto: $10.50
Stroppiana Dolcetto d'Alba: $6.75 by the glass
Rivera Castel del Monte Rupicolo: $8 by the glass
Dezzani Dolcetto d'Alba: $17.50 by the bottle

READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: Straight from the Old Country: Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar
BLOG POST: A Great Italian Wine List at Nundini

Then, as you make your way to the main dining room, you are welcomed by faux Greco-Roman statuettes and Italian marble Renaissance putti, basking in the warm light of the gently lit room. The walls are lined with wooden racks packed with wine bottles, and each section is demarcated by a handsome oval sign that reports the Italian region of origin together with the region's flag. To your left there's an open kitchen, and to your right a wine bar.

The waiter who seats you is a petite man with Mediterranean features and a head of hair I would kill for. His name is Roberto, and he's from Sicily. His horn-rimmed glasses offer a touch of panache, a counterpoint to the classic "waiter" black he dons nightly.

The simpatico ambience of this smallish Italian restaurant, which opened last year, is not surprising considering the fact that owner Giampaolo Nundini began working in the restaurant business in Tuscany in the 1960s and has supplied Houston's restaurants and food lovers with authentic Italian products since the 1980s.

According to his Facebook page, Nundini grew up in Rome, a street urchin whose life path was shaped by Boys' Town, a home for wayward young people founded by a priest in the wake of the Second World War. This story — like a scene from De Sica's Shoeshine or Pasolini's A Violent Life — is truly inspirational. Houston's leading purveyor of Italian food products, Giampaolo has a reputation for humor and love of good food — in fact, he calls himself "The Godfather of Food."

The bad news is that Giampaolo's knowledge and experience in the world of Italian gastronomy do not always translate well in his kitchen.
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On the two occasions that I visited the restaurant in August, I was disappointed by a carbonara — a classic dish of central Italy — made with macaroni instead of long noodles, a flagrant transgression of the Italian culinary canon (an issue that had been resolved by my second visit). The pasta was overcooked and gooey and the sauce insipid.

A veal scaloppa alla milanese arrived not in the form of a breaded and crisply fried escalope but rather a soggy slice of veal that had been dredged in flour and poorly sautéed, resembling instead a scaloppina di vitello al limone (it was topped, in its sogginess, with two slices of lemon). One of the guests who joined me that evening ordered the scaloppina "Oscar." It was the same as my dish but topped with crab meat (traditionally this dish, named after King Oscar II of Sweden, is made using a veal chop or veal loin medallions and is layered with crab, lobster, asparagus and Béarnaise sauce).

The fettuccine alla papalina — fettuccine "for the pope," a dish purportedly favored by Pope Pius XII and a classic of Rome — arrived not with the de rigueur lightly fried prosciutto but with sliced (not crumbled) sausage rounds. The "creme" sauce was so thick and heavy and the noodles so overcooked, I gave up on this dish after two mouthfuls.

As much as I wanted to love Nundini, there's a glaring and sadly regrettable disconnect between Nundini's expertise and experience and the staff he has running the kitchen. The menu also features a number of dishes that are in no way related to pan-Italian cooking, like the Salad Kathrin, which came in the guise of dried-out supermarket mesclun mix, smoked salmon and greened hard-boiled egg and without the promised mozzarella di bufala.

Houston needs more and better Italian and Italianate food, and I'm looking forward to returning to Nundini as Nundini and his team get their sea legs.

In the meantime, I found that the restaurant does best when it keeps things simple, as in the classic spaghetti al pomodoro, cooked perfectly al dente, with an excellent balance of savory, sweet and tart (although a bit heavy on the garlic, a personal choice that I didn't mind at all).

I was also thrilled by the white pizza with bresaola, the air-dried beef of northern Italy. The crust was more like a savory flatbread than an Italian-style pizza, but it was well-seasoned and well-baked. And between the high-quality mozzarella and the truly superb bresaola (a category of Italian charcuterie that's rarely found in Texas and must be stored properly in order to ensure its correct service), you really couldn't lose with this dish. It was an ideal pairing for the restaurant's excellent wines-by-the-glass program.
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Here is where Nundini truly won me over: Not only does the wine program feature a wide selection of more than reasonably priced wines by the glass, its across-the-board pricing adds a mere $6.50 to the wine's retail price for table service (and all of the wines are available for purchase retail).

I loved my glass of Rupicolo by Rivera (Apulia), a blend of Montepulciano and Nero di Troia, a classic entry from one of southern Italy's leading producers. At just $8 a glass, it was one of the most expensive offerings. It had the acidity I crave, dark red fruit flavors, balanced alcohol and the earthiness that expertly vinified Nero di Troia should deliver.

The Dolcetto d'Alba by Stroppiana (Piedmont), at $6.75 a glass (a remarkable price for a wine of this quality), was delicious. Vinified and aged in stainless steel, this wine showed the classic clean and food-friendly stone fruit flavors that make Dolcetto one of Italy's most popular table wines.

I also really liked the Dolcetto d'Alba by Dezzani, which I ordered by the bottle for $17.50 ($11 retail). This entry-tier offering by this respected (however commercial) Italian house was brilliant and couldn't have been priced more affordably.

In a city where sommeliers and wine directors often blame high markups on high taxes and storage issues, a list like Nundini's was a true and very welcome breath of fresh air. I also found the waiters to be generous with their tasting pours, and when I asked my server to open a fresh bottle of Orvieto (after I found the wine flaccid, most probably because the wine had been left open overnight), he was happy to oblige, never missing a beat in his friendliness and hospitality.

Between Giampaolo's knowledge of Italian cookery, the extraordinary materia prima that he and his staff have at their disposal, and a rocking wine program, there's no doubt in my mind that Nundini has all the right stuff to become one of Houston's Italian standbys.

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5 comments
AlainHarvey
AlainHarvey

Based on an overall positive first visit, we reserved a table for twelve friends and ourselves the following month for an 8 p.m. dinner.

7:50 p.m. Arrival & Check-In

Party arrives ten minutes prior to reservation time. We checked in. Informed that our table is not ready and we will be notified as soon as it becomes available. Observe a large vacant table with 14 place settings sits in the middle of the dining room.

8:15 p.m. Check-In Deux

Still not seated. Inquired about large vacant table. It's ours. Finally seated. Some menus provided.

8:25 p.m. (Almost) Everyone Has a Menu

Everyone now has a menu or has given up waiting and is sharing. Likewise with the wine list.

8:35 p.m. Drink Orders Taken

Several couples order bottles of wine. We wait and sip our waters to combat the heat.

8:50 p.m. Wine Arrives

Our bottles of wines appear. Server goes off to find a corkscrew.

9:00 p.m. Corkscrew Found

Corkscrew found! By now most of us really need a drink. One couple notices there glasses of house red are not the same wine. Emptying whatever old bottles are around. All bottles finally opened. Success!

The room is just as sweltering as on our last visit (well-over 80 degrees) and now almost unbearable. The wines are all hot as well, being stored along the walls in the same room.

Waiter explains air conditioning has not been working for a while and agrees it is really hot.

9:10 pm. Specials Described & Food Orders Taken

Now we’re talking!

9:35 p.m. Appetizers Arrive

Half an hour passes slowly in the sweltering heat. I catch myself daydreaming about being a Foreign Legionnaire traversing the hot sands of the Sahara, occasionally stopping to drink hot wine from a goatskin bota.

Hoorah! Our appetizers arrive only 1.5 hours into our reservation. Why did my plate of cured cold meats and olives and my neighbors’ salads take so long to arrive?

Salads (a featured special) were composed of a burrata surrounded by greens and slices of pears, mangos and avocado. The pear and mango slices are hard, unripe and inedible.

10:00 p.m. Owner/Chef Saunters About While Studiously Avoiding Us

 At this point only a couple of small tables of diners remain, lingering in conversation.

The owner in his white chef's jacket, glasses hanging about his neck, saunters through the restaurant, occasionally stopping to chat with diners or to sit at the small bar in the corner of the dining room spending time with an older female employee who we had observed on our previous visit - the regular hostess and possible girlfriend?

The chef/proprietor never sets foot in the kitchen. The sous-chef is on his own in the open kitchen, sweating profusely.

10:20 p.m. Main Courses Arrive & Owner Leaves for the Night

Mains begin arriving. The proprietor/chef leaves his seat at the bar arm in arm with the hostess leaving the building together, never having spoken a word to our table.

Main courses were good but not great. My wife’s sea bass (featured special $30) was flaky and not over-cooked but swims in a puddle of olive oil.

My lamb chops ($35), while not rare as requested are not overcooked. They sit atop a blob of dry, hard polenta. Slices of overcooked zucchini drizzled with balsamic vinegar round out my plate.

Other guests’ food is good but not great. Considering the high prices charged the food should have been uniformly excellent. We now are regretting not having chosen a higher-end restaurant that for the price would have delivered.

10:50 p.m. Request to See Chef

We ask to see the chef for a friendly chat. Alas, it was not to be. As we finished our main courses the chef removed his apron, looks our way and leaves the kitchen never to return. Servers and other workers began cleaning the kitchen.

10:55 p.m. Dessert Orders Taken

We are now the only guests remaining in the restaurant.

11:15 p.m. Desserts & Coffees Begin Arriving

Our desserts and coffees begin to arrive. We’ve observed the youthful servers making the coffees and putting together our table’s dessert order (remember the owner and chef are all long gone.)

11:30 p.m. Valet Leaves

Valet parking is mandatory. Valet approaches during dessert and states (he is leaving and we need to get our cars. We collect our respective keys and tip him. The cars are all parked directly outside the front door of the restaurant anyway.

11:45 p.m. Final Bill Arrives & Sweet Liberty

Everyone finishes dessert and coffee. Time to pay (average amount $150/couple X 7=$1,050). It feels like we’ve all participated in a death march through a Southeast Asian jungle. It was a relief to finally walk out into the cooler night air. We all knew none us would ever be returning.

Note

In large part none of this was the wait staff’s fault. The servers all worked as hard as they could to provided courteous and prompt service throughout the evening. We tipped 20%.

MadMac
MadMac

Checked this place out Friday night with the Mrs. She LOVED the brasoala, btw, thanks, on the tip-side, Mr. Parzen. Everyone seemed warm and friendly. Except our waitress, who seemed new and nervous. When asked about the charcuterie plate--rather than say, I'm not sure/let me ask--this child said, "I don't know, not many people ordered it." WTF? We decided to take our chances and started with the charcuterie appetizer. The plate of thick-cut meat with three olives, would've fed four. I would've given up half the meat for something to cut it with--cheese, bread, hell a cracker. Note: waitress girl redeemed herself by telling me the tea was sour and they had not brewed a fresh urn. Further, it was nice not to be educated that the drink we're PAYING for is a dessert wine. My Mrs. enjoyed the Reisling by the glass. Next up was the pizza we made the trip for. I didn't care for the white pie. At first taste it was like a bland grilled cheese sam'mich. I keep getting an eggy flavor I didn't care for. But, again, the Mrs. enjoyed it. As our table for two backed up with plates, we asked the waitress to pack our charcuterie to go. She left it on the table--training appears to be an issue--and we juggled plates, pizza and a bowl of pasta. The good news of the night was the strozzapreti with safron. WONDERFUL and I doubt we'll screw around with the pizza on our next trip. When asked about the liqueur in Cannoli, (as in what flavor) she proceded to tell us what a Cannoli is, (???). Like I didn't get that from Peter Clemenza. We opted for the gelato and while we were not disappointed, the getting up to go to the counter to return to our seats to tell waitress girl what we wanted (and hope she didn't bring us a plate of McNuggets) was a bit much. Nundini is a fun--if quirky--joint we'll hit again. Thanks for your review, Mr. Parzen.

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

@kshilcutt aw shux Katharine! those are some hi-falutin shoes to fill! congrats again on your AFJ award. http://t.co/CMXbKyha u SO deserve!

 
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