Even though I've lived in Houston for almost five years, I still get a kick out of funky zoning laws that enable restaurant and residential properties to intermingle on the same block. My first year in town, I lived two doors down from a cupcakery, and now, I'm within a stone's throw of Papa Mio Italian Café.
On morning runs and evening constitutionals, I've kept an eye on the development of the restaurant, which purportedly combines elements of a restaurant, bakery and market all in one property. Intriguing, I thought, and perhaps similar to Mandola's in Austin.
Although Papa Mio bills itself as an "Italian" restaurant, one glance at its menu will tell you that its offerings are Italian-American favorites -- the most basic of classic comfort foods inspired by boot peninsula cuisine: spaghetti in meat sauce, lasagna, caprese salads and bruschetta. I did not expect regional Italian specialties with delicate handmade pasta and complex sauces and neither should you. Papa Mio is a "tomato gravy" restaurant, and I (unlike my Italian Nana, bless her heart) do not mean that in the pejorative.
A few nights ago I finally spent some time inside. And ate the food. Unfortunately, these two actions did not take place simultaneously because I was in the midst of a massive holiday craft project (don't ask) that required my presence on the homefront. So, after admiring the cutesy red-checked tablecloths (or "plastics," rather) and perusing the shelves of imported pasta and oils, I ordered calamari and eggplant parmesan to go and skipped on back to my apartment.
Now, I am aware that judging a restaurant within two weeks of its opening is precarious business and judging that restaurant by its takeout even riskier. That being said, the quality of my meal overall only suggested to me that actually dining at Papa Mio, at least in terms of the food, would be a pleasurable experience.
The first thing that impressed me was the generous serving of complimentary focaccia bread included with my order. The sizeable squares were deliciously spongy, moist and speckled with fresh rosemary. With some tomatoes and olive oil, the bread could have been a repast in itself.
My eggplant parmesan, served with a side of linguine, featured layers of pan-fried eggplant, mozzarella cheese and a mild, slightly garlicky tomato sauce. No singular flavors stood out, but -- in combination -- the tender vegetables, rich cheese and soft noodles were lovely and satisfying.
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The calamari left more to be desired. Allowing for the fact that the battered squid might have lost some of its perky crisp in transport, this appetizer (the menu's most expensive at $10) was well-seasoned but disappointingly chewy. A side of marinara (whose eerily even consistency again suggests more "tomato gravy") moistened the squid enough to facilitate mastication, but also unfortunately adhered to the batter such that the entire dish became a soggy mess.
I am reserving final judgment on Papa Mio until I've tried more of their signature dishes in house. Some little birds have also tweeted about slow service; my takeout order was ready in exactly 15 minutes -- so at least on one night someone was hoppin' to it in the kitchen. I'm especially amused by the create-your-own pasta dish option (gnocchi + roasted red pepper pesto + merguez sausage -- oh my!) and will report back when I've indulged my creativity.