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Want a behind the scenes look at Pizzeria Solario? Get a closer look in this slideshow.
Throughout my meal, this weird little poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow kept running through my head:
There was a little girl,
3333 Weslayan, 100
Houston, TX 77027
Region: Greenway Plaza
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
According to Longfellow's son, the poet composed the lines while holding his wailing infant daughter, but it's the final three lines of the poem, rather than the part about the little girl, that seemed so appropriate when I first reveled in the pizza topped with prosciutto aged for more than 600 days in a cellar in Italy; soft, creamy fior di latte mozzarella; and fresh, peppery arugula. When it was good, it was very good indeed.
But then came the orecchiette — little ears of overcooked pasta nearly drowning in a watery sauce of whipped egg yolks and cheese — a gummy, flavorless mess of starch and dairy reminiscent of a just-add-water powdered cheese sauce, only somehow less appetizing. When it was bad, it was horrid.
Every meal I had at Pizzeria Solario seemed to follow this pattern of one outstanding dish marred by a multitude of other, far less impressive offerings. Generally, it was the pizzas that excited me, with their Neapolitan-style thin crusts, scorched on the bottom from the heat of the oven but still possessing the distinct and pleasurably doughy chew that I seek out in a quality pie.
One of the best here is the Parma 600, featuring a white garlic crema sauce (instead of the traditional red sauce), mild fior di latte and strong pecorino cheeses, gamey prosciutto di parma, a touch of funky truffle oil and bright arugula placed on top after baking so it is only lightly wilted. The mixture of fresh greens and truffle oil with the concentrated, meaty aroma of the aged prosciutto dances a ballet across the palate as one flavor gives way to another. By the time most of a slice is consumed, you're left with just the crust, but the crust at Solario is not one you cast aside in favor of a more interesting, topping-covered bite. With its bubbled, crispy pockets of toothsome dough, it's good enough to eat all on its own.
Of course, no sooner had I finished telling my dining partner about the wonder that is Solario's pizza than the waiter set before him a bowl of something mostly white and mushy-looking. We figured, by process of elimination, that this was the orecchiette and cheese, though it looked nothing like the mac-and-cheese-type dish we'd been picturing. And then came the arugula salad, a mound of wilted, spindly arugula full of stems doused in far too much vinaigrette and containing at most a single teaspoon of goat cheese, crumbled and strewn haphazardly throughout the greens.
"This is one of the best pizza places in Houston?" my friend asked.
I turned toward the pizza oven and stared at it, willing the fiery furnace to produce something magical to redeem my now-questionable taste. It only half delivered.
Part of the issue with Pizzeria Solario seems to be that it still hasn't quite gotten its act together in the nearly nine months since it opened, in spite of the fact that it's got a lot going for it. It's one of only a few Houston pizzerias that prepare Neapolitan pizza with the requisite ingredients and manner of cooking known as vera pizza Napoletana (the others being Pizaro's and The Tasting Room at CityCentre, though none is officially certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana). It has the proper elements made fresh every day, from the fior di latte mozzarella to the zesty red sauce and supple crust. It has the cute, modern space with high ceilings and the welcoming outdoor patio in Upper Kirby. In theory, it's all there.
But in execution, Solario falls short. It took me three attempts to finally get the server to bring me more water on one occasion, on an evening when the place was nearly empty. We also had to ask for plates that were clearly finished to be taken away to make room for more food. Those fast-firing pizzas that should take no more than five minutes to cook in the super-hot, wood-burning oven left us waiting for more than 20 minutes on that same slow night, and during that time no one came by to offer an explanation as to why there was such a lag between the appetizers and the main course. Messing up and needing to redo a pizza is fine, and I appreciate the effort. Having to wait for oven space is also understandable (though, again, the restaurant was far from full on that evening). However, eyeing a table from across the room and not stopping by to ask if perhaps a diner needs another drink is just odd.
It really wouldn't be an issue, though, if all the pizzas were worth the bewildering wait. I'd sit idly for an hour for another 12-inch Parma 600 or a Calabrian pie (with gorgonzola and Calabrian peppers). Waiting as long as I did for the Tartufo or Margherita pizzas seemed a bit of a letdown, though.
The Tartufo (Italian for "truffle") sounds wonderful in theory, but too much dairy overwhelmed any other delicate flavors that might have been lurking among the white garlic crema sauce and Fontina and Pecorino Romano cheeses. Even with a fried egg and white truffle oil on top, it was nothing more than a regular cheese pizza and was lacking the tart acidity of red sauce that usually balances a solo il formaggio slice.
So, too, was the Margherita pie — my litmus test for a good pizza joint — unimpressive. Somehow the mozzarella wasn't creamy enough, the red sauce not spicy or commanding enough, and the basil just not enough. The Margherita is also such that it cannot really be picked up without making a mess. The FAQ page on Pizzeria Solario's Web site notes that authentic pizza Napoletana should be soft and wet in the middle from the fresh mozzarella and olive oil drizzled over the top. In Naples, many people eat pizza with a knife and fork, so picking up a wet slice isn't an issue. Here, though, it struck me as more soggy than authentic. But that's just a personal preference. I like to fold my pizza slice in half lengthwise and eat it as my New York-born mother taught me to do.
Nearly any pie with prosciutto or Calabrian peppers makes up for a few pizza misses, however. The fennel sausage pizza with chile oil is available only at lunch, but it's worth a midday stop for the spicy herbal sausage that comes straight from the toe of Italy's boot. The Calabrian is unusual because of its use of gorgonzola — a semi-stinky, funky blue cheese, fatty pancetta and ruddy swirls of Calabrian chile puree, the latter of which which makes the pie surprisingly spicy. But that just means you might need an extra sip or two of Moretti or Peroni, imported Italian beers.
If at this point you still remember Longfellow's verse, you know that since the Calabrian pizza was so good, something not-so-good must be waiting in the wings. In this case, it's the salads, with brown-tinged romaine leaves and watery Caesar dressing, and the polpette (meatballs), saved only by the sugo amatriciana sauce that flavored otherwise bland ground meat.
It's upsetting to me, actually, as it must have been for Longfellow when his generally sweet daughter wailed for no apparent reason. When Pizzeria Solario is on, it's on, churning out pizzas the likes of which I've never tasted before, in Italy or anywhere else. When it's not on, though, which was, sadly, rather frequently on my visits, I can only wonder if this mercurial little pizza shop with so much going for it can satisfy the demands of Houston diners eager for consistency and a fine slice of pie.
In trying to distill the experience at Pizzeria Solario into a few words or a single phrase, my friend and I landed upon this: pizza roulette. You place your bet and hope that luck smiles on you and you've chosen a winning color or number. Only in this case, your bet is your order, and the color or number on which you're staking your money is a pizza, an appetizer or a salad.
I'm going to give you some advice for when you dine at Pizzeria Solario: Always bet on Calabrian peppers and aged meat. If the ingredients of a pizza or appetizer don't list either of those two options, steer clear.
If you bet on the sweetly musky imported chile oil or wonderfully aged prosciutto marbled with rich fat, though, the results, as they say, will be very good indeed.
Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana = hahahaha. You don't need to be certified to make an authentic Italian style pizza. Napolitani are smart (FURBI in Italian, which translates to cunning) to brand their pizza for people who believe certification = good pizza.
@Mells God, I love Italians.
(and you know the etymology of cunning of course, right?)