A Roma Therapy

In the eight-table microcosm of Collina's Italian Cafe, the simple act of breathing is therapeutic: from its homely open kitchen tumble warm, yeasty drafts, tomato-edged and ripe with garlic, that beget an almost giddy sense of well-being. The simple act of eating a pizza here can be therapeutic, too. In a world full of tiresome pies -- from knee-jerky to hideously trendy -- Collina's gorgeously crusted wheels are so fresh and immediate as to seem newly invented.

I find myself uncharacteristically reluctant to tout Collina's virtues. A sudden onslaught of new customers could wreck the delicate ecosystem at this familial little place, crushing the cozy neighborhood feel that is such a scarce Houston commodity. Our low density, social fluidity and ultra-mobility leave us long on chains and destination restaurants, short on the modest everyday spots that enrich cities organized around more traditional mixed-use neighborhoods. Collina's may dwell in an aging strip center opposite HISD headquarters -- our homegrown version of a neighborhood site -- but with its gentle prices, bonhomie and comforting food, it's the kind of joint you long to discover around your own corner.

Most nights, the red-checkered tables fill up by 7:30 or so with a familiar cast of characters. At their regular corner table, two grandfatherly gentlemen tuck napkins beneath their chins and produce wine from a brown paper bag (no liquor license here, but you can BYOB). The stylish owner of the China Garden restaurant ducks in for her own special takeout pizza, a custom job involving pepperoni, ground beef and cheese. In the kitchen, Paul Hill -- a longtime Vincent's waiter who opened Collina's last fall with his wife, Lisa, and with Vincent Mandola's blessing -- coaxes a blob of his beloved high-gluten dough into shape.

He pats and pulls and tosses the elastic circle, raking it with a spiky rolling pin to expel excess air, distributing its distinctive cargo of mozzarella, provolone and romano with the intensity of Van Gogh addressing a canvas. "I like to play around with dough," he'll confess to anyone who exhibits the slightest degree of interest.

It shows. His yeast-happy crusts display a breadlike "rise" that makes them soft within, wonderfully crunchy without, their thinnish plains climbing to a rim of puffy, romano-glazed hills. (It seems too ridiculously perfect that the Hills' name, in Italian translation, is collina.) So good is this crust that even Collina's simplest pizzas shine: the Margherita is an elemental mosaic of the reddest fresh Roma tomatoes, basil-leaf ribbons and cheese, brought together with fragrant olive oil and shocked out of complacency by a heady dose of garlic. It can be had in a full-bodied whole wheat version, but the plain, classic crust has more spring in its step; the wire pedestal on which it arrives lends the proper sense of occasion.

Just as striking is the Mona Lisa, a vivid disk of fresh spinach and tomato laced with earthy mushrooms and sharp feta cheese; get the Hills to add some red onion, and you have a sure contender for Houston's best pizza. Feta gives pepperoni a novel twist on the pizza Greca, where onion is standard. But the pizza rustica fails to click: chewy slabs of insufficiently cooked eggplant subverted its sausage and red peppers the night I tried it.

Indeed, Collina's clumsiness with eggplant is my chief gripe about the place. Tough rounds of the stuff crowned a mista terra salad on a recent evening; lose the eggplant, though, and you have a better-than-average romaine and Roma salad with feta, onion and peppers chiming in, all dressed in a sprightly vinaigrette. Good-quality olive oil gives all the salads character, from the simple house toss to the marinated tomatoes spiked with basil and red onion.

Those tomatoes cry out for Collina's focaccia, another tribute to Paul Hill's passion for dough. Hot from the oven, gilded with olive oil and romano, its spongy wedges are quilted with aromatic rosemary and garlic. Now if only the Hills would construct a few of their sandwiches from this spectacular bread.

Among the handful of pastas, ravioli stuffed fat as full moons with discouragingly mealy cheese suffer from an equally discouraging bland tomato-cream sauce. But lasagne and its cousin, beef cannelloni, are superlative comfort foods: their lean-beef filling fluffed up with an ethereal mix of ricotta and romano cheese, their tomato sauce plain and bright. If these dishes have a flaw -- and it's a minor one -- it's that their blankets of molten mozzarella and provolone tend to mask the other flavors. Still, this is exactly the medicine I crave at the end of a trying day.

Collina's unaffected salad-sandwich-pasta-pizza repertoire is fleshed out with a daily special worth paying attention to. One night it was that delicious cannelloni; another, capellini and tails-on shrimp in a frisky, red-peppered diablo sauce zapped with licorice-y fresh basil. Best of all was a beautifully sauteed snapper fillet, barely on the opaque side of translucent, with its tart lemon-buttery sauce seared right into the fish. With focaccia, a pleasant salad and a forgettable nest of marinara-sauced angel hair, it seemed the essence of trattoria food: unpretentious, gratifying and, at $10.95, relatively cheap.

Dessert? Formidable brownies dusted with confectioners' sugar. Or a surprise like one night's baked Granny Smith apple sheathed in a crunch of brown sugar and moored in a caramel-syrup pool.

The level of solicitude here is disarming. Whether splitting orders, composing half-and-half pizzas, or offering lemonade refills, dough-making trivia and complimentary glasses of jug wine ("We can serve it, we just can't sell it"), the Hills and their staff manage to make their patrons feel eminently cared for. Small wonder that Collina's quirks and bobbles seem so forgivable. Styrofoam cups, comically mismatched chairs, misbegotten eggplant, ceiling fans struggling against warm spells in the small, spartan dining room... what of them? There is opera on the sound system and homey food on the table. There is conviviality and yeast in the air.

This miniature idyll can't last. Reviews and word of mouth and newcomers will intervene. The regulars sense it. "Everyone says they should expand," volunteers Ms. China Garden as she waits for her pizza. Her voice is tinged with ambivalence. An unspoken assumption hangs in the air -- we are Houstonians, therefore we grow. The unspoken question is this: having grown, will Collina's still be Collina's?

Collina's Italian Cafe, 3933 Richmond, 621-8844.

12-inch Pizza Margherita, $7.50;
house salad, $2.25;
lasagne, $5.95;
focaccia, $1.50.


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