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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 1, Pastiera di Mare con Granchio e Gamberi at Ciao Bello

This dish is so good, it got its own photo shoot.
This dish is so good, it got its own photo shoot.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

I first ate this dish back in August of 2013, and it's been on my mind -- and my list -- ever since.

On August 7, I attended the second in a series of regional Italian cuisine dinners hosted by Tony Vallone at Ciao Bello. The first one had been focused on the food of Sicily, but the one I went to was about Naples, a region Jeremy Parzen, our wine writer and a friend of Vallone's, tells me is very close to the restaurateur's heart. And boy, did Vallone's passion show in the food.

The meal was prepared by Bobby Matos, executive chef at Ciao Bello, whose name I firmly believe needs to be mentioned in the same sentences as Chris Shepherd, Hugo Ortega and Marco Wiles as making some of the best, most praiseworthy food in Houston. The cuisine of Ciao Bello isn't pushing boundaries, as it is at Oxheart, The Pass or Uchi, but it is, in my opinion, some of the most immensely satisfying food in Houston.

Which brings me to the best thing I've eaten here all year, prepared with skill and restraint by chef Matos: the Pastiera.

Pastiera is a traditional Neapolitan dish, often served sweet instead of savory for the Easter holiday. Online searches haven't revealed much to me about savory versions of the dish, though many of them include pasta, eggs and cheese in what amounts to a sort of casserole. This dish is not like that.

It's fluffy enough to equate it with a soufflé -- all airy eggs with a delicate jiggle once it's been baked. The eggs are mixed with mascarpone cheese, which is essentially more-acidic clotted cream, for a combination that is simultaneously light as air and intensely rich. Add to that chunks of crab meat and shrimp and a crust that's been slightly browned in the oven, and the result is a dish that I keep finding myself explaining by saying, simply, "You just have to taste it."

Here's the original pastiera I fell in love with in August.
Here's the original pastiera I fell in love with in August.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg

The pastiera is prepared in a large pan and served by the slice. Preparing it is a long, delicate process, so it was intended to be a one-time thing, served only at the Neapolitan dinner, then shelved with however many other amazing recipes haunt Tony Vallone's kitchens. I let it slip to him a while back that I wanted to write about the dish. The only problem, I said, is that I couldn't write about something that no one could get. I couldn't tell people how amazing this food is, then in the next sentence reveal they wouldn't get to eat it. Vallone agreed that would be unfair, and now (probably to Matos's chagrin), the pastiera is on the menu at Ciao Bello.

I recently went to Ciao Bello and ate it again for the first time in eight months. It was just as incredible as I remembered. It's served piping hot, steam oozing out of the crevices between chunks of shrimp and egg. There's a drizzle of creamy pesto on top--much needed acid to cut through the richness of the cheese and seafood. It's a masterpiece of a dish, labor-intensive to prepare but gloriously simple in its high-quality ingredients.

Matos told me that his mother had recently been to Ciao Bello and tried the pastiera. Like I had been, she'd been wowed. You will be, too.

And lest you think choosing an Italian dish as the number one item in Houston is to ignore the diversity this city has to offer, let me stop you there. It contains seafood you can find in the gulf; Italian sensibilities brought to Galveston by immigrants more than 100 years ago; the legendary name Tony Vallone behind it, as well as up-and-comer Bobby Matos; and it's one of the first things I ate upon my welcome to this great city.

So now, when I think of Houston, a little part of me thinks of pastiera. And then I get hungry.

See the full list of favorites on the next page.

 

The list so far: No. 2: Bone Marrow Pho at Pho Binh by Night No. 3: Hamachi Nabe at Uchi No. 4: XI Madame at Eleven XI No. 5: Brisket at Killen's BBQ No. 6: Aji de Gallina at Latin Bites No. 7: Chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex No. 8: Pickled Butternut Squash Salad at Coltivare No. 9: Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata No. 10: Seafood Gumbo at Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen No. 11: Grilled Fish Masala at Himalaya Restaurant No. 12: Curry Noodle Soup at Mamak Malaysian Restaurant No. 13: Foie Gras au Torchon at Étoile Cuisine et Bar No. 14: Caramelized Pork Spare Ribs at Cafe TH No. 15: Kobe Beef at Nara No. 16: Okra With Crème Fraîche at Oxheart No. 17: Alba White Truffle Soufflé at Tony's No. 18: Phat Ass Ham Hock at Goro & Gun No. 19: Dahi Puri at Shri Balaji Bhavan No. 20: Fried Catfish and Cajun Crawfish at The Cajun Stop No. 21: Foie Gras Crème Caramel at Just Dinner No. 22: Roasted Pear Salad at Backstreet Cafe No. 23: Fluffernutters at Fluff Bake Bar No. 24: Som Tam at Vieng Thai No. 25: Chips and Queso at Fusion Taco No. 26: Spicy Miso Ramen at Soma Sushi No. 27: Kim Cheese Fries at Coreanos No. 28: Fried Cauliflower at Roost No. 29: Caesar Wedge Salad at Provisions No. 30: Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone at Fat Cat Creamery No. 31: Cochito con Mole Xico at Hugo's No. 32: Carnitas at Molina's Cantina No. 33: Taleggio Pizza at Dolce Vita No. 34: Chiles de Padron Asados at Caracol No. 35: Morning Thali at Pondicheri No. 36: Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls No. 37: Trompo Tacos at Taqueria La Macro No. 38: Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana No. 39: Mum's Chicken Curry At The Queen Vic Pub No. 40: Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's No. 41: Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith No. 42: Fried Oyster Po'Boy at Goode Company Seafood No. 43: Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai No. 44: BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 45: Guanciale Burger at Plonk No. 46: Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario No. 47: CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar No. 48: The El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme

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Ciao Bello

5161 San Felipe St.
Houston, TX 77056

713-960-0333

ciaobellohouston.com


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