Houston Vice

Vizio's tucked-away location has been the downfall of earlier restaurants.
Daniel Kramer

It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect good things from Vizio. Before opening the restaurant, its chef and owner, Tommaso Lestingi, spent seven years at Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano, the popular, critically acclaimed restaurant specializing in cuisine from the Sardinian region of Italy. The young chef, who's made quite a name for himself, just received this year's Rising Lone Star Chef award from an elite group of Texas chefs that includes Houston's own Tim Keating of Quattro. I expected to be wowed; instead, I was at a loss.

In Italian, vizio can mean "vice," but it can also mean "blemish" or "defect." Unfortunately, the restaurant has many an imperfection. One is practical: Since the building is tucked away off Mid Lane, it's not easy to spot from Westheimer. The most recent restaurant to fail in this location was Cafe Perrier; prior to that, a series of other restaurants left their tombstones in the same spot.

On our first visit, we stepped into the yellowish glow of the simply appointed dining room and noticed a patio off to one side. There could not have been a more perfect evening for outdoor dining. As the waiter handed us menus, he asked whether this was our first time here. As we both nodded, he said, "The food's great, the service so-so." He was only half kidding. The waiter then advised us that the osso buco was not available. I thought nothing of this until, a few moments later, I glanced around the dining room and counted a total of seven other guests, none of whom appeared to be eating the osso buco. I wondered how the restaurant had run out.

Perusing the wine list, which, as you might expect, is heavy on Italian choices, I spotted a 1996 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano La Braccesca from the famous Tuscan village just east of Siena. Only after aging for at least two years in oak or chestnut barrels can a wine be designated "nobile." The name, which means "noble wine," is said to have originated from the fine wines once reserved for the tables of the nobility. The dark ruby-colored wine is robust and somewhat tart, and it goes well with most Italian dishes. The waiter quickly returned with a 1998 vintage that wasn't even on the list. The 1996 wine we'd asked for was not available.

Bread and grissini (bread sticks) soon appeared. When the waiter returned to take our order, I started questioning him in more depth. I'd heard that a not-to-be-missed appetizer at Vizio was the burrata del colle, literally translated, "butter cheese from the hills." Unfortunately, this too was unavailable since, according to our waiter, there had recently been heavy flooding around the Apulia region, where this cheese comes from. A recent review of Vizio in the Houston Chronicle also noted that the cheese wasn't available. That time, the explanation was that the Italians all go on holiday during the whole month of August. (True.)

When I asked our waiter to recommend some entrées, he mentioned the lobster pasta without hesitation. We followed his suggestion, and to start with, we chose the insalata di bietole rosse, a layered salad containing tiny cubes of beetroot, white cannellini beans, carrot shreds and cucumber slices. The menu said that the salad also contained truffle pieces. Neither of us could find or taste any. The salad was bland, but at least it was colorful. Our other appetizer, the seared scallops, consisted of four scallops wrapped in prosciutto, making them fairly salty. They sat in a cream spinach sauce, which was much too watery, as if the spinach was still giving up its liquid long after it had been cooked.

When we were done with the appetizers, another waiter presented us with a small plate of olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. "Shouldn't this have arrived along with the bread?" I asked, receiving only a smile in response. Our regular waiter then sheepishly appeared to announce that the lobster pasta was unavailable. Since there were more waiters than customers in the restaurant, I wondered whether this dish was a favorite of the staff.

The risotto ai frutti di mare arrived with a large sprig of rosemary protruding from its center, as if standing at attention. The dish had no shortage of seafood, with clams, calamari, shrimp, mussels and scallops all making an appearance. Even though it was cooked with Vialone Nano rice from the region around Venice, which is creamy if cooked correctly, it was not as creamy as a risotto should be. My companion and I both also noticed that the dish was decidedly salty. Before ordering the rack of lamb (agnello), I suggested to our waiter that he might want to check to see if it was still available. He assured us that it was. The lamb, which we'd requested to be medium, arrived rare. We chose not to return it. The chops looked more like spare ribs with hardly any meat on them.

The final misstep of the evening occurred over dessert. I'd overheard the waiter serving guests at another table talk up a bowl of fresh berries, which seemed to be a nice, light way to end our meal. Our waiter informed us that the only dessert available was a made-to-order tiramisu. "Only one dessert for such a high-class place?" I asked. "Don't you have any fresh berries?" His "no" seemed to indicate we were keeping the staff from closing for the evening. As it turned out, the tiramisu, served in a martini glass, was exceptional. Its sweet and very creamy mascarpone cheese flowed between the ladyfingers, which had been doused with coffee and liqueur. As a total surprise to me and, I suppose, to our waiter, the chef sent over another dessert. Maybe he was trying to make up for all of the menu items that weren't available. It was pumpkin ice cream of a deep yellow-orange color that tasted like a chilled pumpkin pie without the crust. Superb.

On a second visit, we discovered a couple of standout dishes. We also discovered that three dishes, including the osso buco, were still not available. The calamari con polenta consisted of extremely tender strips of squid in a delicious, light broth in which sat the creamy polenta. By the time we finished eating this dish, the polenta had absorbed most of the broth; we sopped up the rest with bread. Vizio's tuna salad comes with mixed field greens and an ample piece of tuna, which was marinated in soy sauce, seared on the outside and cut into strips to reveal a gently warmed interior. Both appetizers gave us hope that our first experience had been an anomaly.

This time, the taglierine con aragosta, or lobster pasta, was available. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. The tomato-based sauce was too watery, and the broad taglierine pasta was unable to absorb much. The lobster pieces were so small they seemed almost macerated. But the spigola sale, the other seafood dish we tried, was a spectacularly dramatic dish featuring a whole sea bass encrusted in salt. The chef himself presented the entrée before cracking open the salt crust and deboning and serving the fish with a simple drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. It was obvious that he took pride in his creation. Cooked in its own juices, the particularly moist fish was the treat of the evening. Vizio has been open for just over six months now, so the imperfections we encountered cannot be blamed on inexperience. The ingredients should be the building blocks of Lestingi's creative cuisine, if only he could keep them in stock.

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