As I write this, I turn 40. With all the worries and self-evaluations that go with that chronological milestone, I've been thinking about, among other things, the importance of food in my life. The first meal I truly remember eating was cooked by my old Italian babysitter, Connie Gallo. It was at her house. I was there with my younger brother, and she made a real, honest-to-God Italian red sauce. I remember ribs simmering in the incredibly rich sauce, spiked with cloves of garlic, totally unlike anything my mother would have cooked. I couldn't stop eating it. (I have a distinct memory of eating nearly half a pound of pasta, quite a lot for a seven-year-old, but I suspect my middle-aged memory has inflated that figure over these many years.) Still, I remember the kitchen, the sauce and feeling utterly and completely happy.
In her forward to The Gastronomical Me, M.F.K. Fisher raised the question of why she writes about food. She wrote, "Like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our most basic needs for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot think of one without the other....There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk."
For me, on my 40th birthday, my body and soul called out for Italian food. And The Italian Cafe, in Seabrook, answered it deliciously.
The place is not the most attractive and atmospheric restaurant. In fact, it's really one step above a cafeteria. There is a menu, but it's really not necessary: As you walk in, there is, on your right, an array of white china plates covered with plastic wrap, displaying exactly what the restaurant has to offer. (I've seen this before only in Japanese restaurants, but there the food is fake. This is the real thing.)
The Italian Cafe is not exactly the place to go if you're in the mood for pampering: You place your order at the register (no credit cards), then a hostess seats you, walking you past the open kitchen. You fill your own drink at the cafeteria-style fountain machine and then wait until they call your number. When the appetizers are ready, you get up and fetch 'em yourself. About the time you're done with the starters, your main dish will be ready. You will, of course, get that yourself, too.
But the people who crowd into The Italian Cafe don't do so because of the atmosphere and the service (or lack thereof). They do so because of chef Frank Piazza's food. The approach here is not cutting-edge. It's not hip. Instead, it's heartwarming and delicious, "soul food" of the highest kind.
His bruschetta ($3.95) is a perfect example: Sliced high-quality Italian bread is toasted, then topped with garlicky, lightly sautéed spinach, chopped tomatoes and barely melted, breathtakingly fresh mozzarella. Could it be any simpler? No. Could it be any better? I doubt it. It's an example of the chef's art; the very best ingredients, combined simply, the total far more than the sum of its parts.
Or try the soup. Minestrone ($3.50) is a warming, soulful bowl of vegetable soup, perfect with a sprinkling of Parmesan. If you had an Italian grandmother, dreamed of having one or merely loved The Godfather, this soup is certain to strike a chord.
If you want a bit of heat, the zuppa di pollo ($3.50) is a lovely chicken soup, flavored with, as the menu states, lime and coriander (barely discernable), jalapeño (definitely discernable) and chunks of moist chicken and vegetables. It, too, benefits from a little sprinkling of Parmesan.
The woman at the register informed me that customers fight over the pollo roma ($13.95). One bite told me why. A chicken breast is pounded thin, lightly breaded, sautéed, served with a gossamer lemon-butter sauce and then topped with more of that ethereal mozzarella. On the side was a mound of capellini in a white-wine cream sauce sparked with bits of prosciutto. (One of my tablemates commented that he had never tasted a pasta this good. I hadn't either, yet in a way I had: It matched my most fervent pasta dreams.)
A close runner-up was the shrimp Sicilian ($13.95). Large shrimp are breaded, sautéed and served in a garlic white-wine sauce; the side dish is pasta covered with a hearty, garlicky red sauce. If the pollo roma was rich, mellow and soothing, this dish was the flip side of Italian cooking: robust, intensely flavorful and exhilarating.
I could go on and on, recommending dishes willy-nilly, but it doesn't really matter what you order. While The Italian Cafe is not exactly "new and gourmet," the restaurant's quality ingredients and the obvious love and care it puts into its dishes make it, at least to this slightly nostalgic 40-year-old, better than anyone could ask for. You've heard of Chicken Soup for the Soul? This is Italian food for the soul.
The Italian Cafe, 4622 NASA Road 1, Seabrook, (281)326-1618.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.