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Capri in Spring

The gnocchi have just the right texture.
Troy Fields

For more photos from Capri's dining room and bright, open kitchen, check out our slideshow.

Capri Pasta Pizza and More might be the greatest restaurant in Houston you've never heard of. It's not visible from the pounding rush of traffic on I-45. It has scant reviews on sites like Yelp and B4-U-Eat. Heck, it's not even technically in Houston.

But all of these things are what make this authentic little Italian spot, situated directly next to a busy Firestone in a dreary bone-white strip center, so wonderfully endearing. The handmade pastas and charming service don't hurt, either.

The one thing that is missing at Capri, however, is the "pizza" promised in the title. Over a recent weekday lunch, when the restaurant is much quieter than it is on evenings and weekends, the manager explained with a wry smile that the pizza oven has now been converted to additional workspace in the kitchen after the owners found that CiCi's $2.99 buffet up the street was attracting far more Spring residents than Capri's own painstakingly housemade pizzas with homemade mozzarella di bufala and freshly made dough.

"It was costing us too much to turn the oven on," she lamented, before quickly accentuating the positive: the tiny pizza dough squares served alongside garlic bread with a sweet, tangy marinara sauce as lagniappe before each meal. Puffed and angular, they look a lot like that old Bologna favorite, fried gnocchi. The pizza dough squares are the last remnant of Capri's pizza past.

"When we decided to stop serving pizza, we still had a bunch of pizza dough left over to get rid of," the manager explained. So the kitchen chopped it into little squares and baked it, serving it with the garlic bread until it was all gone. And then Capri's customers revolted, demanding more.

"Our customers would go crazy if we stopped serving them," she grinned. "So we still make fresh pizza dough every day for those little squares. It takes forever, and it's one of the most expensive things we do here."

"And," she added with a final laugh, "we're giving it away for free!"
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Capri opened just over a year ago, in January 2010, after Italian-born Barbara Coglianese moved to Houston to join her husband, Maurizio, and raise their two boys in the quiet suburbs north of Houston. Barbara herself hails from Imola, a large town just outside of Bologna best known for Formula One racing and for being a stronghold of the Italian resistance movement during World War II.

When she arrived, Coglianese looked for a space in Houston proper to open a restaurant that would showcase her family's Bologna-style recipes, but finally settled on this stretch of I-45 just north of Rayford/Sawdust in order to be close to their new home. I wonder how differently Capri would have panned out so far if it were located closer to Houston, closer to equally authentic (yet more expensive) joints like Da Marco or Damian's or Patrenella's.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like Capri or the Coglianeses are suffering from the restaurant's odd location or lack of signage along the freeway. On a recent Saturday night, the cozy dining room was nearly full. My dining companions and I snagged the last table, close to an older man who was crooning '70s standards in a thick Italian accent from behind a DJ setup and large speakers. We clapped after each song. Our waiter lit a candle on our table halfway through the night, the multicolored wax around the holder a record of previous candlelit evenings, like tree rings.

Looking around, it was easy to see the first reason Capri was packed: It's BYOB. And, as the waiter informed us, there's no corkage fee. Groups and older couples were splayed happily at tables containing half-drunk bottles of Chianti and Nero d'Avola and plates piled with tagliatelle and lasagna.

We hadn't brought any wine but plowed ahead with our orders nevertheless: a plate of that pillowy-looking lasagna for my boyfriend, penne alfredo for my picky cousin and tagliatelle al salmone for me, along with calamari to start. But after we'd placed our orders, I saw the specials for the night, which included freshly made burrata served on a bed of basil and tomatoes. I couldn't resist.

Food has no right to be as lovely as a lily-white mound of burrata, its creamy center percolating across the plate. Capri's version is no exception, with a salaciously salty middle that I helplessly gobbled up along with little pepper-freckled cherry tomatoes and torn basil leaves. The fact that it's made daily only helps its case. I know it's a lot to ask, but if Capri were to swap out the burrata with the everyday caprese salad that's offered on its appetizers list, I might find a way to drive up to Spring every single week just for that milky mound of cheese.

Our fried calamari was nothing special, on the other hand, but I did enjoy the fried artichoke hearts that had been thrown into the mix, along with that same sweet marinara that's served with the pizza squares. And although I thought my cousin's penne alfredo would be similarly ho-hum, it turned out to be one of the evening's many stars, the silky sauce made with nothing but butter and Parmesan cheese — no heavy cream here.

In fact, heaviness doesn't seem to come into play in Capri's talented kitchen. Thankfully. Even the lasagna was like something from a dream, a nodding-off sort of nap you'd have after eating too much mille-feuille. Each layer in the lasagna was gossamer-thin and fine, and so wispy you'd barely expect it even to convey any flavor: the savory Italian equivalent of that thousand-layered French pastry. Far from being as heavy and meat-laden as other lasagnas, this Bologna specialty was a downy display of beautifully handmade pasta and velvety ricotta.

Like my wonderfully al dente tagliatelle, the lasagna noodles are made fresh at Capri every day. The kitchen also makes its own pappardelle, gnocchi and ravioli, and uses De Cecco pasta for other items like penne and farfalle. So while the "pizza" may well no longer be a part of the equation here, the pasta blissfully is.
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That gnocchi is probably the finest pasta that Capri makes. Just barely covered with a thoroughly rich four-cheese sauce perked up by that blue-veined bite from some pert gorgonzola, the gumball-size potato dumplings have just the right texture: chewy without being gummy, dense without being heavy, fluffy without being insubstantial.

As luck would have it, I found myself eating gnocchi twice in one day last week. Once over lunch at Capri — whose inexpensive lunch specials are yet another reason I wish it was closer to town — and then again at a dinner at Tony's for food writer John Mariani, the Italian cuisine connoisseur and Esquire correspondent who just published a seminal book called How Italian Food Conquered the World. I didn't tell Mariani about the sweetly homespun Capri with its Imola-inspired mosaics, all done by Barbara Coglianese herself; I don't think it's his kind of place. But I did find myself pondering the differences between the gnocchi served at Tony's and those at Capri.

At Tony's, Houston's imperial capital of Italian cuisine, each thumb-size gnocchi is carefully plated and presented with uniform texture and quality. They are all masterfully duplicated identical twins of one another. At Capri, the gnocchi is slightly smaller, less elongated, and has a rough-hewn appearance and feel that almost correspond to the fleshy curve of a hand's palm. The two pastas could not be more different from one another, yet I love them both equally.

This kind of expression through food, especially something as basic as gnocchi, is fascinating, enabling a chef to define a restaurant and its direction with something as simple as the shape of a piece of pasta. I found myself so interested in discussing this idea that, God help me, I started to talk up Capri to Tony Vallone himself, in his own restaurant that same night.

"Have you ever heard of it?" I asked him.

"No," he said with a smile, "but it's a little out of the way."

"You should try it some time," I pressed on. "It's fabulous stuff. The owner is from right outside Bologna, from a town called Imola."

"Ah, Imola!" Vallone replied. "That town is very well known for its food."

After eating Barbara Coglianese's food at Capri, I can see why.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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