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Tipping in Restaurants Reaches a Tipping Point

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Best of Houston

Rest of the Best 2013
Houston's top 10 pasta dishes.

Kaitlin Steinberg

Tipping after meals is no longer as universally accepted as it once was.
Tipping after meals is no longer as universally accepted as it once was.
The cheese sticks at Lucky Burger are top-notch.
Joanna Leary
The cheese sticks at Lucky Burger are top-notch.

Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners have been announced, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we're rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!

For me, as I suspect it is for many, pasta is the ultimate comfort food. My family isn't Italian, but I grew up eating a lot of pasta. On birthdays, it was fettuccine alfredo. For special events, it was linguine with shrimp scampi. On any given weeknight, it might be a mixture of roasted veggies and chicken with something imperfect from our pasta extruder, but it was always delicious and filling.

The first dish I ever learned to make was pasta alla puttanesca, and it's still what I make the best and what I get requests for when I'm home. Trips to Italy opened my eyes to a whole new world of utterly simple but incredibly flavorful pasta dishes and unique ways to incorporate various vegetables and proteins into my pappardelle or conchigliette.

Of course, pasta isn't only Italian anymore. Pasta (not to be confused with Asian noodles) has found its way into Jewish, French, Cajun, American and numerous other cuisines. I'll argue that Italian is still the best, but there's no denying that pasta is perfect in just about any form. Here are some of the most perfect plates of pasta in Houston.

10. Kenny & Ziggy's

I know, I know. You're thinking I'm crazy. A list of the best pasta — arguably the national food of Italy — and the first place she mentions is a New York-style Jewish deli?! Yes, and here's why: Kasha varnishkes. At Kenny & Ziggy's, the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish is prepared just as it would be back in the old country. The ultimate soothing combination of buckwheat groats, bowtie pasta, eggs, chicken stock, onions and mushrooms was even featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network (for whatever that's worth). But if you don't trust Guy Fieri, trust me: This hearty, grain-heavy dish is geshmak!

9. Bayou City Seafood & Pasta

As a resident of the Bayou City, I would be remiss if I created a list of the best pastas without a tip of the hat to the bayou itself and all the fresh seafood that comes from it. At Bayou City Seafood & Pasta, the traditional Italian dish gets a Cajun makeover, thanks to some mudbugs and a bit of spice. During crawfish season, the best pasta on the menu is the Pasta Lafayette, a simple dish of fettuccine or angel hair with sautéed crawfish. Order it "Justice style," which will get you a thick topping of spicy diablo sauce and creamy alfredo sauce.

8. Paulie's

Paulie's is a Houston institution, and one dinner there will tell you why: consistent, reliable service; a large, unfussy menu; and handmade pasta in giant portions. Honestly, I can't pick a favorite pasta at Paulie's. Both the canestri alla funghi, with cremini and shiitake mushrooms in a light sage cream sauce, and the bucatini amatriciana, with smoked bacon (in lieu of the traditional guanciale), fire-roasted cherry tomatoes, garlic and chile flakes, are wonderful, and a large portion is more than enough for two people to share.

7. Tony's

Of course the father of Italian food in Houston has a place on the list of best pasta. The handmade ribbons of pappardelle or fettuccine have the ideal elasticity, and the sauces are simple yet full of flavor. Though I'm a sucker for the pillowy pansoti filled with squash and bathed in a sage essence cream, the best pasta on the Tony's menu is so special that it's around for a limited time only every year. During burgundy truffle season (fall through early winter), Tony's offers tagliarini in a cream sauce with truffles gingerly shaved over the dish right at the table. It's almost otherworldly in its decadence.

6. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

Though I can seldom resist a good mushroom pasta (don't worry, there will be more later), the gnocchi di funghi at Giacomo's is the second-best pasta dish on the menu. The best is the tagliatelle alla bolognese, a traditional meat sauce that's often attempted and rarely done right. Giacomo's gets it, though: It should be more meaty than tomato-y, more ragù than marinara. At Giacomo's, the bolognese sauce still tastes of the long-simmered carrots, onions and tomato paste, but the beef is the true star of the show.

5. Da Marco

And in case the truffle pasta at Tony's wasn't enough truffle for you, try Da Marco's. It's quite similar, but at Da Marco you'll pay twice as much money and get twice as much pasta and truffle. In the winter, owner Marco Wiles goes to Alba himself to gather the white truffles that are later served at Da Marco (note: Tony's is currently serving burgundy truffles). The moment when the truffle is shaved over your pasta and the scent of earth and mushrooms and something almost garliclike in its piquancy fills your nostrils is something that, as former Press food writer Robb Walsh has noted, every lover of food should experience at least once in his or her life.

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