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Getting Your Ital-Mex Fusion Fix at Bellissimo

Bellissimo is the Heights-area trattoria with a tinge of taqueria.

Take a virtual tour of Bellissimo in this week's slideshow.

You know that tired old bumblebee metaphor people trot out when they're trying to describe something that shouldn't work but does? I always found it rather silly — and maybe a bit insulting to the bumblebee itself, which knows what it's doing — until those few times when I found the analogy fitting.

Bellissimo is a bumblebee of a restaurant. Nothing about this odd, charming Italian-Mexican restaurant in a converted Chinese buffet on Airline should work. But it does.

Black beans, jalapeños, cilantro and diced tomatoes shouldn't work in an Italian pasta dish, but at Bellissimo they do.
Troy Fields
Black beans, jalapeños, cilantro and diced tomatoes shouldn't work in an Italian pasta dish, but at Bellissimo they do.

Location Info

Map

Bellissimo

1848 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77009

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: Heights

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Crab cakes: $9.95
Pasta alla Bellissimo: $9.95
Calle 25 pizza: $8.95
Calle 25 pasta: $9.95
Lasagna: $11.95
Grilled red snapper: $17.95



More On Bellissimo:

Slideshow: Bellissimo: Trattoria with a Tinge of Taqueria
Blog: Opposites Attract: Italian-Mexican Fusion Works Wonderfully at Bellissimo



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Black beans, jalapeños, cilantro and diced tomatoes shouldn't work in an Italian pasta dish, but at Bellissimo they do, in harmony with chargrilled chicken and a delicately flavored jalapeño fettuccine whose gentle green ribbons provide a festive backdrop for the fiesta of ingredients. This dish — the aptly named Pasta alla Bellissimo — is one of the house specials and is representative of the intriguing fusion fare you'll find from chef/owner Javier Machuca.

Before opening Bellissimo in mid-2012, Machuca had accumulated 23 years of cooking at some of Houston's most beloved Italian restaurants. He spent a decade at La Strada, then another 13 years as the executive chef at the downtown location of Mia Bella. Along the way, Machuca gathered two decades' worth of knowledge and techniques, which he's now employing to great acclaim in dishes that fuse the two most prominent cuisines in his life: Mexican and Italian.

It's not just in the fettuccine dishes, either, such as the popular Calle 25, which introduces smoked sausage, earthy sun-dried tomatoes and a creamy alfredo sauce to the fresh diced jalapeños, grilled chicken and jalapeño fettuccine that form the base of the Pasta alla Bellissimo.

Machuca's influence and deft techniques are also found in a jaw-droppingly good lasagna, the layers impossibly fine and separating pockets of finely ground beef under a blanket of mozzarella and a marinara sauce that tastes far more like the cumin-laced chile gravy you'd find on good beef enchiladas. It was a stunning find. Although I rarely suffer dining envy, my dining companion was provoking full-scale jealousy on a recent Monday night as he saved me three bites and gobbled up the rest of the enchilada-esque lasagna for himself.

I don't blame him. I would have saved him only one bite.
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That Monday night was my second visit to Bellissimo, after an incredibly successful Friday night dinner that left me craving more. The restaurant is conducive to a variety of meals — double dates, family dinners, weekday evening wind-downs, business lunches and anything of the casual-dining persuasion, really — although evenings have been my favorite time to visit so far.

This is when you can take advantage of the restaurant's BYOB policy that charges a $10 corkage fee until Bellissimo gets its TABC license. We brought in a Cabernet Franc one night and a Belgian Saison another, because why stick to strictly Italian wines when the food is this fun?

Nighttime also provides a soft-focus lens through which to view what is admittedly a rough location inside a massive, renovated space that used to house the absolutely abysmal Jumbo Buffet (which opened and closed inside of ten months). That said, this new location is prime real estate compared to Bellissimo's former location a few blocks away inside a lime-green shack that couldn't hold the crowds flocking to eat Machuca's food each night.

With the move, Bellissimo is now even more of a neighborhood restaurant here in the greater Heights area than it was before. It's still crowded at night, but there's not a wait anymore. Lots of touches have been brought over from the previous space — the old-school red napkins spun into thin fabric towers on each gleaming white plate, the clean black tablecloths topped with a square of white butcher paper, the sincere and attentive service — and the old maroon curtains that once fronted Bellissimo's small windows have multiplied to cover the massive bank of plate-glass windows that line the front of the new space. The curtains mute the brightness of the sun during lunch and give the dining room a charming, homespun feel.

There's still a lot of work to do in the otherwise bare-bones space, but that's one of the things I like about Bellissimo. You get the impression that Machuca and his family — who help him run the restaurant — are in this for the long haul, excited to grow into this enormous new space and make it better every day.
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I already feel that the food improves every time I visit Bellissimo, as does the service from the young waitstaff. They're able to anticipate your needs in a manner not often seen outside of older, established restaurants with equally established servers. The food, too, has that consistency that comes from years of cooking and recooking and perfecting recipes.

On my first visit, I found the crab cakes so good I thought they must have been a fluke. The densely packed patties were almost all crab and very little cake, two of them nearly floating on a golden pond of beurre blanc. But not just any beurre blanc — one that contained far more butter than is typical, emulsified into a thick, velvety sauce saved from being too buttery (yes, there is such a thing) with light touches of lemon and chipotle. I ordered the crab cakes again on my third visit and found them every bit as lovely as the first time. (And this time I used a spoon to eat half the sauce on the plate.)

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7 comments
john1934
john1934

Pasta with black beans, chicken, cilantro and tomatoes is one of Prego's best dishes. It works so well I make it at home minus the jalapeno fettuccini since I can't find it anymore.

AwesomeMargie
AwesomeMargie

My Mexican-Italian self is super happy right now.  Yum!

jeffbalke
jeffbalke

So glad they moved. I could never stomach the long wait at the old location no matter how good I heard it was. Can't wait to try it now since it is less than five minutes from my front door. If they get lunch rolling, it will be worth the 6 or 7 minute bike ride.

KublaConn
KublaConn

Whenever I try out a new Italian restaurant, my go-to, test dish is always eggplant parmigiana and Bellissimo passed the test with flying colors.  

Jenandtonic
Jenandtonic

Bellissimo serves up fantastic food. I haven't been to their new location, but their old location had a good, reasonably priced wine list which I'm excited to see return once they get their booze license.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@KublaConn I didn't get to expound on my own eggplant parm, but I really enjoyed it. In particular, the terrific amount of fresh spinach stuffed between the layers along with the ricotta cheese.

KublaConn
KublaConn

@kshilcutt I agree with you, the spinach was a key factor in my enjoyment of the dish.

 
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