For behind the scenes photos from George's kitchen - and to see how that wonderful rigatoni campagnolo is made - check out our slideshow.
The table next to us at George's Pastaria was occupied by a high school couple on a date, eyeing each other shyly as they ate bowls of spaghetti. Near the front door, a full table held a quartet of uniformed HPD officers who were greeted with handshakes and warm smiles by the staff. By the flat-screen television, families caught up with each other over pizzas while the men sneaked glances at a football game between conversations.
I'd opted that night for a simple dish: pasta à la George, a kissing cousin to the rigatoni campagnolo, my favorite item on the menu. Onto a mound of spaghetti goes a creamy tomato sauce, not much different from a vodka sauce, topped with a tangy lump of goat cheese and a few stray basil leaves. It was so good that I happily took the rest home and ate it the next morning for breakfast, reheated with a fried egg on top.
My dining companion had gone high-end and opted for the grilled salmon at $16.95. His fish was gently cooked in a white wine butter sauce that could have used more capers to punch it up, but was solid otherwise. And, as at those Americanized Italian restaurants of old, it was served with a side of spaghetti.
I thought briefly of Big Night — that cine-food favorite from 1996 — and smiled. George's Pastaria may be more on the Pascal's side of that movie's spectrum than on the Paradise side, but only in a good way. Paradise, the restaurant run by fresh-off-the-boat Italian immigrant brothers, was the more authentic of the two restaurants. But rival restaurant Pascal's was more popular, and with good reason: It gave people what they wanted.
The atmosphere at George's Pastaria on any given night is that of a small town or a close-knit neighborhood joint, where everyone knows everyone else and everyone comes "home" for a few hours in the evening over glasses of wine and straightforward Italian-American dishes like eggplant parmesan and spinach lasagna.
Eggplant parmesan here is blessedly lacking in that waterlogged texture that can plague some eggplant-based dishes. The eggplant is firm, the breading crunchy and adhering steadfastly with each bite. Lasagna is hearty, served in such a large portion that sharing is advised. And if you're a weirdo like me, George's will happily douse its vegetarian spinach lasagna in savory meat sauce if you so request. The Greek salad and house salads come with two pert anchovies on the side, a small touch that always makes me smile.
I even like the cannoli at George's, and that's saying a lot, considering I tend to find most restaurant desserts overprocessed, overwrought, over-sugared and usually under-salted. The thick wrapper of each cannolo is bubbly and crunchy, barely containing the creamy mascarpone inside. It's just sweet enough for dessert, but not overwhelmingly so for those of us with tiny sweet teeth. I do wish that the cannoli weren't drizzled with chocolate sauce, but I'm probably in the minority there.
But it's that rigatoni campagnolo that keeps me coming back here for more: tubes of rigatoni topped with that creamy tomato sauce, resplendent with plump nuggets of fennel-laced sausage and sautéed bell peppers. And, of course, a dollop of goat cheese on top. It's that Italian classic — sausage and peppers — repurposed in an American setting and greeting you like an old friend.
The pizza is a popular item at George's for two reasons, that I can tell. It's easily shared with a group — and there are usually plenty of groups at pushed-together tables — and it's good, simple stuff. One evening, I took a friend who used to own a busy downtown pizza joint with me to test it out. The cheese pizza won his approval to the extent that he ate an entire pie by himself.
Reflecting on it afterward, he said, "The cheese itself was really good."
"It wasn't over-cheesed, which some places have a tendency to do," he continued. "The sauce was light and not too chunky. The crust held up well, but it was a small, ten-inch pie, so it might be floppier on a larger pie," he warned. I had to agree with his assessment, especially about the fluffy crust and the lack of sag when I brought each piece up to my mouth.
Longtime Houstonians may remember George's Pastaria from its old location at Westheimer and Hillcroft, where owner George Reed first opened his restaurant in 1987. Friends of mine who worked at Channel 39, just down the street, routinely ordered pizzas from there nearly in bulk while using George's almost as their second living room. And although it's now moved to west Houston, it's clear that the patrons still come to George's with that same attitude.
According to his menu, Reed opened the restaurant with his wife, Rene, in an effort to bring the Italian-American food of his youth to Houston. Reed grew up in Pawling, a small town in upstate New York, and the food at George's Pastaria does remind me — if nothing else — of the homespun Italian food I stuffed myself with many times over in places like Buffalo and Rochester.
Over a meal with a friend who'd been eating at George's since the old days on Westheimer, she told me the main reason she liked George's: "It's the same Italian comfort food we ate in the 1950s," she said. "It's almost kitschy now, but it's still good and it's still comforting." Indeed, a sense of comfort permeates the entire space, from the gleaming wood floors and tables to the dim, amber lighting.
In another unusual move, seemingly designed with its customers' ultimate satisfaction in mind, the restaurant allows you to BYOB even though they have a very sturdy wine list of their own. And even more gallantly, George's waives the $10 corkage fee Mondays through Wednesdays (while still offering to chill your wine and provide stemware). But if you didn't BYOB, don't fret: All bottles of wine of more than $32 are also $10 off on these days. That's the time to go in and get a real steal.
That's exactly what I did on a recent Monday evening, snagging a bottle of fruity, funky Yarden Pinot Noir from the list for only $39 — the markups are already fairly low here — and enjoying the Israeli wine with some friends over our meal. It was an interesting selection on a list otherwise dominated by Italian and Californian wines, but the waiter bragged on the Yarden after I'd chosen it: "We were the first restaurant in Houston to offer Yarden," he said. "You'll really like it."
Despite the waiter's thorough understanding of the wine list, however, the service here does have a lot of hiccups. Part of that can be attributed to the sheer youth of the waitstaff, most of whom look like they're in high school. It's a common theme out here, almost a rite of passage for kids in west Houston. The service is slow and a little clueless at times, but that's almost part of the charm.
One could argue that old-school Italian-American comfort food has steadily been elbowed out of the market by "authentic" Italian restaurants like Da Marco and Poscol. It's no longer necessarily "cool" to admit that you really enjoy giant plates of baked ziti, or chicken parm served with that omnipresent side of spaghetti. But at George's, no one is concerned with being cool. No one is concerned with the latest food trends. They're only concerned with good food and good wine.
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