Where: Raia's Italian Market, 4500 Washington Avenue, 713-861-1042, www.raiasitalianmarket.com.
What $13 gets you: We'd been driving by Raia's Italian Market for a while, always meaning to stop but never quite getting there. The steady stream of customers should have been a clue, but silly us, we always kept on driving. Finally we made a special point of dropping in, and we were well rewarded for our effort.
We had a little trouble settling on our order - not because the menu is unwieldy, but because everything sounded so good. Starters include shrimp and crab claws ($12), fried calamari with marinara ($7), and sausage and peppers grilled with onions ($7). Salads range from a simple house salad ($3.50) to a more robust Insalata Butera ($8).
The pizza combinations vary from the Primavera (chopped mixed veggies, garlic, and a marinara sauce for $8), to the Sicilian Wrangler (Italian sausage, pepperoni, jalapenos, onions, cheddar and mozzarella chesses, and barbecue sauce for $10), to the Rotunno (prosciutto di parma, arugula, mozzarella, reggiano, and marinara sauce for $12).
But we turned out attention to the pasta offerings. The blue crab ravioli (raviloli stuffed with peppers, onions, cheeses, and crab meat in a spicy crema rosa sauce for $15) was out of our budget; ditto the New Orleans (fettuccini pasta, shrimp, and crawfish in a spicy cream sauce topped with lump crab meat for $14). But there were plenty of choices that fit our $13 spending limit. I chose the lasagna (layers of pasta, ground beef, cheeses and marinara sauce, $8.50), and my dining partner went for the pomodoro (cappellini pasta with roasted tomatoes and basil sautéed in garlic and olive oil, $9).
The lasagna that arrived at our table looked as big as a city block (okay, maybe it was just a six-inch square), and the pomodoro seemed to have been served in an bottomless bowl. The lasagna was dense and kept its shape even as I dug in (no slipping and sliding layers here). Although it was covered with a layer of marinara sauce, there seemed to be very little between the layers themselves, making for a pleasant if slightly drier, chewier texture. The pomodoro was delicious thanks to a light-handed cook (the garlic was present but not overpowering, and the tomatoes were lightly roasted, not charred).
We both got to about the half-way mark before we surrendered and said "basta." The servings were much too large to be consumed in one sitting (unless it's by that Man vs. Food guy from the Food Channel).
Recommended: Absolutely! Just bring a big appetite or be ready to share.
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Insider tips: One of the perks at Raia's is that you can bring your own bottle of wine. (Why pay restaurant prices for a glass of wine, when you can bring your own bottle?)
For a real bargain, stop by for lunch. You get any three items off the lunch special menu for just $6.95. We called the day after we visited, and the offerings included roasted chicken, spinach lasagna, pasta Louisiana, tilapia, steamed vegetables, sautéed green beans, three bean salad and mini cannoli.
For a lighter lunch, share a Market Platter (an assortment of cheese, deli meats, olives, and other delightful treats). That and a couple of small salads should leave you well-satisfied.
Try the gelato. It's rich and creamy, and wisely served in tiny "this is really all you should have" bowls.