A few years back, Tennessee novelist Jesse Hill Ford wrote a magazine article about an old family friend who always began his meals by eating dessert. After watching him do this day in and day out, Ford finally mustered the courage to ask him why. Well, the friend replied, given the state of the world, and the state of his health, he never knew when he might die. And he'd sure hate to die in the middle of a meal, without getting to the dessert.
I've always felt a certain empathy for that point of view, and never more so than recently, after dining at Corelli's Italian Cafe. There is much that I like about this ten-month-old addition to the restaurants lining Westheimer just outside the Loop: that it's in my neighborhood, that it's inexpensive, that it dishes up a quite fine basic bowl of pasta and red sauce. But none of those come close to how much I like that it's introduced me to the concept of the dessert pizza.
Now that I've had it, I don't quite understand why others haven't been hawking something like this for a long time. The idea is simplicity itself -- roll out a pastry crust in a pizza-esque circle, bake it, then top it with sweetened marscapone cheese and fruit; marscapone, apples and cinnamon; or drizzled chocolate and pecans. With sliced strawberries and whole blueberries and blackberries resting on a thick layer of the creamy cheese, the best of the three varieties of dessert pizza even looks a bit like its mozzarella, tomato and sausage cousin. The taste, though, is altogether different, the tartness of the fresh fruit contrasting exquisitely with the smooth sweetness of the marscapone. Granted, I've thought it would be nice to take a bit of the cinnamon that coats the apple version and sprinkle it on the mixed fruit version, but that's a minor caveat. Compared to the overused desserts found in most Italian restaurants (particularly the much abused tiramisu), Corelli's dessert pizza is a marvel. It didn't surprise me at all when a Corelli's waitress, after a little discussion, confided that the night before she'd made her dinner out of a cup of cappuccino and a dessert pizza. Not tops in the health department, to be sure, but a great way to greet eternity, should eternity come calling during the evening repast.
Actually, Corelli's offers more than a few dishes that, if not quite worth dying for, would at least let you perish with a certain culinary contentedness. Unfortunately, few of these are found in the appetizer and salad selection. The salads, save for the pleasant enough Pappa Corelli's pasta salad, are serviceable at best. And of the three appetizers offered -- sausage and peppers, bruschette and shrimp Corelli -- only the last is truly worth ordering. The use of Candelaria sausage keeps the first appetizer selection from being the utter failure of the bruschette, which is a surprising clunker on a menu that has very few. The bread is nothing special (indeed, it's the very same bread that comes as an accompaniment to any of the pasta dishes), and the topping is even less than that; on one occasion I wondered if the pesto, mozzarella and Roma tomato mix had been left out on the counter too long. It had a bitter flavor that had me pushing my plate away after one or two bites.
Not so the shrimp Corelli, though, which after a single tasting had me thinking of ways I could steal the plate from the person I was sharing it with. A sextet of plump, fresh shrimp sauteed with large slices of garlic in herbed olive oil -- this is something worth slathering on the accompanying Italian bread, and also something worth sopping up until the last olive-oiled streak is gone.
That same mix of olive oil and garlic, along with pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and a thickly gritty pesto sauce, pumps life into the linguine al pesto, which has over the weeks become a personal favorite. Too often in restaurants that are aimed at a broad audience, as Corelli's most obviously is, a certain shyness about strong flavors creeps in. Rather than offend some palates, restaurateurs hold back, moderating a spice here, limiting an ingredient there. Corelli's, though, has the courage of its convictions, and that shows most strongly in its free hand with the garlic. No diced garlic, no garlic slivers, no crushed garlic here. Instead, thick garlic slices are found mixed into many of the dishes, from the red sauce that accompanies the sides of pasta to the lasagna to, most notably, the linguine al pesto. It is possible, I suppose, to have too much garlic in a dish, but so far I haven't encountered that problem. Nor, from what I can tell, has Corelli's. In the linguine al pesto, the garlic provides a base for the earthiness of the pesto and the lightness of the olive oil, and helps connect them; the result is an enchanting mouthful.
The chicken rolatine, too, isn't shy. Like the dessert pizza a Corelli's creation (at least I haven't seen it on any other menus around town), the rolatine is a thinly pounded chicken breast rolled with spinach and mozzarella, given a light coating and then pan fried. That in itself is interesting enough, but the topper is the topping, a white wine lemon butter sauce that doesn't stint on the lemon. The resulting tartness may be too much for some -- one lunch companion found it close to overwhelming -- but is more often a wakeup call to the taste buds. Indeed, according to Corelli's owners, the chicken rolatine is one of their most frequently ordered items, running neck and neck with the lasagna.
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On a menu heavy with more standard trattoria-style Italian dishes, that says something. And on a menu where the customary Italian offerings -- the spaghetti with meat sauce, the manicotti, the fettucine alfredo, the chicken marsala -- are handled as effectively as they are here, that says even more. Of particular note in the more familiar selections is the use of a suga rosa sauce instead of the ordinary marinara; suga rosa, based on Roma tomatoes and sweeter than most standard red sauces, gives a little twist to some of the basics. It doesn't drastically alter them, but it does wake us up to remind us why these dishes became basic in the first place: because they're as soothing as they are tasty.
Corelli's has the look of a franchise in the making, and the owners admit that thanks to the success of the Westheimer restaurant, they're looking to expand to locations in Sugar Land and Clear Lake. But they insist that the core idea was to be a neighborhood joint first, to become the sort of place where people would feel comfortable stopping in two or three times a week for a meal. So the prices were kept low -- most of the entrees are well under $10, and include a salad and bread -- the ambiance was kept friendly and the choices were kept recognizable. So far, they've succeeded admirably, and if the new Corelli's can keep the atmosphere of the original, then it'll be a franchise worth having. Or at least one worth ending a meal at.
Corelli's Italian Cafe, 5640 Westheimer (at Chimney Rock), 629-4424.
Corelli's Italian Cafe:
dessert pizza, $4.95 (small),
shrimp Corelli, $5.95;
spaghetti with meat sauce, $7.95;
linguine al pesto, $7.50;
chicken rolatine, $8.95;