Antica Osteria

Antica does a terrific version of lobster fra diavolo.
Troy Fields

Antica Osteria is a quiet little Italian restaurant in Rice Village. There are only 13 tables in the cozy main dining room, five or six more in the dark bar and half a dozen out on the patio. It's a good place for a romantic dinner, despite some quirks.

My dining companion and I were seated at a white-linen-covered table in the dining room near a window dressed with tasseled curtains of a type that might remind you of a funeral parlor. The walls had been treated with an antique bronze faux finish. A dried flower arrangement with feathers was displayed in an ornate vase by the front door. The decorating was dreadful, but there was still something classy about the place.

In Italian, antica means "ancient" and osteria means "tavern." Judging by the average age of the patrons, you might guess the name means "tavern of the ancients." It couldn't possibly mean "ancient tavern," because the restaurant is relatively new. Detering Book Gallery occupied the location just a couple of years ago.

At Antica Osteria, the specials are written in chalk on a blackboard that the waitperson brings to your table. That's where the freshest fish, choicest meats and seasonal pasta offerings are listed. In three visits, I came to the conclusion that pasta is the wisest thing to order at Antica Osteria, and the noodles on the blackboard are apt to be the best.

That's where I found the restaurant's terrific version of lobster fra diavolo. My dining companions warned that at the $24 price, it would probably be nothing more than a couple of lobster chunks in a pile of macaroni. It turned out to be a whole "papershell lobster" cut in half with lots of spicy spaghetti in seafood sauce mounded in the middle.

Once a year, lobsters molt their old shells and create new, larger ones. For the first few months after molting, the shells remain very soft. You can tear the papershell lobster apart with your bare hands. The lobster inside hasn't grown into the shell yet, so it doesn't yield as much meat; they sell for quite a bit less than hardshell lobsters. But for $24, the lobster fra diavolo at Antica Osteria was still a bargain.

The ravioli al sugo di porcini, round cheese ravioli with porcini mushrooms in tomato basil sauce, were excellent. The dried porcinis had a meaty texture that gave substance to the tomato and basil "sugo." And the rich sauce saved the ricotta and ­parmesan-stuffed pasta pillows from ­blandness.

Spaghetti alla carbonara normally means spaghetti with pancetta or bacon and eggs. I make it by sautéing chopped onion and bacon pieces, tossing them with spaghetti and beaten eggs and adding lots of parmesan. At Antica Osteria, they went light on the bacon and eggs and heavy on the cream. It tasted like a cross between carbonara and alfredo sauce, by far the richest version of spaghetti alla carbonara I've had.

Spaghetti alla chitarra means "spaghetti from the guitar" in Italian. It is a special spaghetti from Abruzzo that is cut on a wooden box with lots of wires stretched across it, hence the guitar name. The pasta comes out very thin.

One of my dining companions, who fell in love with the guitar pasta on a trip to Italy, was disappointed to discover that the spaghetti alla chitarra at Antica Osteria was just plain spaghetti in a boring sauce of olives and diced tomatoes. Why they call it "alla chitarra," I have no idea. Maybe they listen to The Mighty Orq while they make it. Four tablespoons of crushed red pepper and a half a bowl of parmesan helped the flavorless dish slightly.

The carpaccio was the best of the appetizers. It was a small plate of bright-red, raw, shaved beef filet with rectangular chunks of parmesan on top, all drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. The meat and hard cheese tasted great on the restaurant's crusty Italian bread. Too bad there was so little of it.

Antipasto rustico, a collection of very ordinary salami and cheese slices with olives, was dull, and so was an asparagus salad from the blackboard menu. A simple pile of fresh peppery-tasting arugula tossed in vinaigrette was the best salad I sampled there.

When dining in Italy, I have always liked the antipasti and pastas better than the ho-hum roasted meats and dried-out seafood that inevitably dominates the secondi (main courses) section of the menu. So I guess I shouldn't complain about the boring secondi at Antica Osteria. But I will anyway.

Gamberoni alla russo, which the menu described as "lightly floured shrimp pan-fried in a light wine sauce," was just as innocuous as the menu promised. It might as well be renamed "shrimp lite." Equally lackluster was the trota in padella, pan-fried rainbow trout with capers and fresh herbs. I have had more exciting preparations of Mrs. Paul's fish sticks.

A blackboard special of filet mignon in brandy cream sauce was ordered medium-rare. It was beyond medium, on its way to medium-well, when I cut into it. The waitress insisted on taking it back, and I congratulate the restaurant's integrity in making me another steak.

Unfortunately, the second one arrived bloody and cold in the center with a streak of white gristle running through it. But that's what you get for sending your steak back. The waitress asked if I wanted them to cook it more, but I was too hungry to wait any longer. I ate it rare. The sides were plain roasted potatoes and plain julienned zucchini.

An osteria, or tavern, is typically a place to go drinking in Italy, and Antica Osteria is well suited for that task. There is a full bar, and the wine list is quite reasonable. We had a bottle of fizzy, peach-scented Prosecco on our first visit, and it was a big hit.

The wines by the glass were surprisingly hip. The waiter said the whites they were pouring were a Pinot grigio, a Chardonnay and a dry Alsatian Riesling, and to my surprise, he recommended the Riesling. It was a big, spicy wine with lots of acidity, a knockout with the seafood — and not exactly your typical wine by the glass.

If you save room for dessert, try the cannoli. The pastry tubes are stuffed with an especially rich sweetened ricotta and decorated with a confetti of pistachio bits and minced dried apricots. It's one of the best I've had in Houston.

The food at Antica Osteria is not likely to impress fans of Mario Batali. The interior is outdated, and the clientele is a tad hoary. The last time I visited the restaurant, dapper 90-year-old oil tycoon and former ambassador to Austria Roy Huffington came in with a cute young blond on his arm — not the crowd you run into at your usual trendy hot spots.

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