It's been hard to keep up with all the upscale Italian-themed cafes that have opened in Houston in the last few months. Even more interesting is the fact that these restaurants aren't really very Italian at all, but pay only passing homage to an Italian inspiration. Behind Tuscany Grill's Italianate appellation, for example, lies a whole planet of culinary influences. The story's similar with Fiamma, which means "flame" in Italian. Pastas and pizzas are there for the having, of course, but they're just as likely to show the influence of chef Jill Johnston Lewis' stint in New Orleans (consider the muffuletta pizza) or of her three years on the Pacific Rim (as in the tandoori chicken pizza) as they are her classical training at the Culinary Institute of America or the time she spent in Europe (as evinced by the pizza primavera or the fettuccine Alfredo).
The most innovative chefs, of course, develop their own signature recipes from the myriad inspirations that inevitably cross their paths. Such is the case with Lewis' pumpkin lasagna, a multicolored flag of layered fillings, each flavor complementing the next: the orange earthiness of the butternut squash filling (a seasonal substitute for pumpkin), the charred, dark crimson stripe of roasted tomatoes, the bitter, dark green of a garlicky spinach layer and the sweetish, pearly white stratum of a cheesy, dense bechamel sauce. All these colors and textures are sealed up together in a cover of chewy, browned pasta, which rests on squiggles of pesto and olive oil. A handful of whole toasted almonds and a salty shard of Parmesan cheese are tossed casually on top. It's food such as this that will separate Fiamma from the crowd.
And it's food such as the appetizer of an antipasto terrine that will aid and abet that distinction. Multilayered like the pumpkin lasagna, the spreadable eggplant, roasted tomatoes and pine nuts come nestled next to a tangle of greens. Unfortunately, the too heavy, too thick layer of garlic cream cheese dominates when it should be just a footnote, but that's a small complaint. Overall, a smear of this concoction spread onto a bite of focaccia torn off from the bumpy, saucer-sized round that's provided gratis when you sit down is truly satisfying stuff.
A charred lamb special tasted great, too, but -- in part because the server failed to ask my dinner companion how he wanted the meat cooked -- was way too rare and, consequently, tough. A bright yellow, smokily sharp curry sauce was a perfect complement to the cucumber and mint compote in yogurt that was piled in the middle of the plate, but the side of couscous was disappointingly dry. The tandoori chicken pizza is another dish that shows the Indian influence Lewis picked up when she was living in her husband's native Australia. (In many cities there, Indian restaurants are as common as Mexican restaurants are here.) The meat on this pie was not the bright red I'm used to seeing come out of a tandoori oven but rather the bright yellow of turmeric. Along with the chicken, which was rather sparsely strewn over the pizza's surface, bubbly brown mozzarella smothered rounds of eggplant, roasted peppers and a thin layer of tomato sauce. A dollop of a yogurt cucumber salad, almost a replica of the lamb special's compote, was piled in the middle of the pizza as an interesting touch. The whole combo is a little odd, but good.
In fact, everything I sampled at Fiamma was satisfactory. Any cooking flaws or ingredients of iffy quality were atoned for by the dish's successful concept, and any concept over which one might raise an eyebrow -- such as the off-the-wall sounding pumpkin lasagna -- made the grade thanks to the kitchen's impressive execution. A lunchtime scaloppine of chicken, for example, found me chewing on a few morsels of gristly poultry -- but once I got past those bites, the meat, pounded wafer-thin, was surprisingly tender. A ladleful of simultaneously rich and light creamy lemon sauce was a lovely neutral backdrop for a confetti of multicolor julienne vegetables of all varieties. The artichoke hearts topping the vegetables were yummy, though the vegetables themselves were too salty. Simple angel hair pasta topped with a puree of tomatoes and garlic put the whole dish into that class of lunches that make you wonder how you will possibly stay awake for the rest of the afternoon. Far be it from me, though, to complain about getting too much for my money.
I suspect that Fiamma's sous chef, John Boehm, late of the Grotto, was the brain behind the chicken scaloppine. He's the one who brings classical Italian training to Fiamma. When Jill Lewis came on board during the restaurant's remodeling, the owners had already erected a sign that dubbed Fiamma "an Italian bar and grill." But Lewis talked them into letting her develop a more eclectic menu, and they wisely acquiesced. So down came the sign, and the owners decided instead to offer daily and nightly specials in the classic Italian vein to attract the customers who'd been loyal to the location's previous true Italian incarnations: Domani and Portobello's. And they also hired Boehm, who helps bridge the gap.
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An appetizer found on the lunch menu is a perfect example of such continent-straddling fare: patate pazzo is a gussied up, trendy Euro-version of the potato pancakes fried in butter on top of an onion slice that I grew up eating. This rendition is garlicky, tenderly crisped and browned. Its crusty outside yields with a barely noticeable crunch when you bite into it. The inside of the pancake is comfortingly mushy and grainy. Wilted greens, rails of sweet grilled red pepper and mounds of soft, sour goat cheese make up the bed on which these little patties come to rest -- and become the vehicle by which this dish transcends the kitchens of Italian moms and enters the realm of New Cuisine. Exemplary. And, with a glass of crisp pinot grigio, a perfect lunch.
Lewis has a flair for invention that even spills over to the dessert tray. I passed up the ubiquitous tiramisu and creme brulee for the singular-sounding lemon chiffon ravioli. Sure enough, it was pasta: two sunshine-colored triangular pillows in a shallow pool of blood-hued raspberry sauce were pumped with a cloud of sweet stuff that was so fluffy it seemed almost wimpy in contrast to the dish's dramatic colors. This creation is a strong tribute to whomever first realized that lemon and raspberry would bring out the best in each other. And it's a testimony to what can happen when creative license is allowed to transform the ordinary.
Fiamma, 8503 Westheimer, 787-9399.
pumpkin lasagna, $9;
patate pazzo, $5.50;
tandoori chicken pizza, $8.50.