Less Price, Less Spice
"What?" I repeated loudly as my dining companion and I leaned over the table, struggling to hear each other. I'd made the mistake of asking her how she liked her spinach at one in the afternoon at Pronto Cucinino, the cutesily named new fast-casual Italian restaurant on Montrose.
At 11:45 a.m., the atmosphere in the expansive dining room had been quite pleasant, but now, an hour later, the decibel level was unbearable and conversation impossible. If Houstonians were this loud at Astros games, the team would already have a pennant. My lunchmate and I ended up going outside and sitting on a bench to compare notes on the food. "What a relief," she said as we exited the din.
This was my second visit to Pronto Cucinino, and I told her about the first one. On that visit, four of us sampled the dinner fare. The house specialty is "wood roasted lemon garlic chicken," and you get to stand beside the fragrant fowl rotating on a spit in a giant fireplace as you wait to order.
In a classic Pavlovian response, I ordered chicken for dinner while my mouth watered, watching them spin. A half-bird came with sides of garlic mashed potatoes and Italian-style green beans. You'd think garlic mashed potatoes might be overwhelming with a lemon-garlic chicken, but in fact I could barely taste any garlic at all in the potatoes.
Unless you eat the skin, the chicken tastes bland and only mildly smoky. The white meat was dry. But the dark and crispy skin was loaded with pieces of caramelized garlic and herbs, soaked with lemon juice and dripping with that treasured substance known as schmaltz in Yiddish and chicken fat in English. None of the three women I was eating with could be tempted by even a little taste of the chicken skin. (By the faces they made, you'd think the stuff was poisonous.)
But it fixed my problems with the faintly flavored meat and potatoes. By mixing the herb-, garlic- and fat-oozing skin with the bland chicken meat and lackluster mashed potatoes, I managed to make the whole meal taste good.
My daughter Julia couldn't resist ordering a dish called pasta Julia, a satisfying mélange of penne pasta, roasted chicken, spinach, mushrooms and marinara sauce served in an oversize bowl. We also tried a very thin and tediously tough grilled pork chop served with caramelized onions and melted Italian cheese. The Italian sausage was equally disappointing. It came with an unappetizing loose casing that had to be removed. Then one of my tablemates gagged on a large chunk of ligament that was hidden in the sausage meat. No one dared touch the rest.
But we were still on the fence after that first visit. The food wasn't great, but for a fast-casual restaurant, it wasn't all that bad either. And Pronto Cucinino certainly had Olive Garden and all the comparably priced Italian restaurant chains beat. So I came back for lunch hoping for a good experience.
I had arrived early, so I tried to get a cup of coffee while I waited. They didn't have any coffee. But they did have espresso and cappuccino. So I got a cappuccino that was so weak, the flavor of cinnamon overwhelmed the flavor of coffee. And it cost $3.
Then I almost grabbed a handful of breadsticks. They looked to be the same paper-package variety that are free at Cafe Express. Except Pronto Cucinino wanted 25 cents a package for them. So I put them back.
When my lunchmate arrived, we looked over the menu, but I insisted she remain at the table while I got up to order for both of us. It was a prime table by the window, and I knew if we both left it, the staff would clear my empty coffee cup and another party would steal the table. Fast-casual regulars are acutely aware of this problem. You can't leave your table unattended at any time in a fast-casual restaurant or you will be evicted immediately.
For lunch, I got the linguine diavolo, al dente pasta with shrimp, mushrooms and olives in what was billed as a "spicy marinara." It was a well-made sauce, with none of the watery run-off you see at mediocre Italian restaurants. But it was hardly spicy enough to merit the "devil" moniker, which is usually reserved for diabolically piquant sauces. In fact, this marinara was barely spicy at all.
My lunchmate had a nice-sized piece of roasted salmon with sautéed spinach on the side. The salmon was overcooked for my tastes. When we got outside where I could hear her, she explained that the spinach was okay, but it didn't have the bold garlicky flavors you get when you order the spinach at Nino's.
Pronto Cucinino is the fast-casual cousin to Nino's and Vincent's, the highly acclaimed Mandola family Italian restaurants located down the street on West Dallas. (Hence the cute misspelling of cucino.) My lunchmate said she thought Pronto Cucinino was "pulling their punches" on the seasonings compared to the other Mandola family restaurants. Unfortunately, I had never eaten at Nino's or Vincent's, so I had no basis for comparison.
A few days later at high noon, a buddy and I were shown to a table in the bar area at Vincent's. As soon as we were seated, we were served some excellent rustic Italian bread and vegetables marinated in olive oil. And nobody tried to charge us a quarter, either.
The waiter asked if we wanted a glass of wine. We opted for iced tea. I already knew what we were going to order: Vincent's house specialty, half of a wood-fire-roasted chicken with garlic, lemon and rosemary (sound familiar?) and the linguine diavolo. But first we had to listen to the waiter as he recommended the expensive osso buco.
After we ordered, the waiter came by to ask if we would like a salad. My friend asked if the salad came with the meal. When the waiter said it didn't, we declined. A few minutes later, the waiter returned to our table and attempted to deliver two salads. After some argument, we sent him away.
Finally, we got our chicken and linguine, and what a difference there was between this and the same dishes at Pronto Cucinino a few blocks away. The roasted chicken was moist and juicy throughout the white meat. And the linguine diavolo, which had contained only shrimp at Pronto Cucinino, was served here with shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels and a marinara sauce loaded with so much red pepper, it left my nose watering. This food was stellar, I told my friend.
We compared the Pronto Cucinino menu, which I had brought with me, to the Vincent's menu. Linguine diavolo goes for $15.95 at Vincent's and $9.95 at Pronto. Half a chicken with two sides goes for $14.95 at Vincent's and $10.95 at Pronto. "Hey, I got an advertising slogan for them," my buddy said with a grin, looking over the menus. "A third less price and a third less spice."
Until Pronto Cucinino came along, it was always difficult to compare fast-casual to fine dining. Cafe Express and Cafe Annie have the same owners, but not the same food. But by serving the same items at Vincent's and Pronto Cucinino, the Mandola family has given us a lesson in what we're paying for.
I would much rather pay a couple of bucks more and eat at Nino's or Vincent's, where the food has some pizzazz. But if you're getting takeout for the family and have to consider the tender taste buds of small children, then the blander, cheaper pasta dishes at Pronto Cucinino may be your best bet. And you never have to worry about making a reservation or waiting over there. But don't expect to be coddled. Pronto Cucinino is a high-volume eatery with the same impersonal feeling you get in a fast-food restaurant.
Not that that's all bad. Wait service, which is the main difference in cost between fast-casual and fine dining restaurants, isn't the treat it used to be. The days when the friendly server acted as the customer's advocate are long gone in most restaurants, as our experience here illustrated. The American food-service industry has turned the once kindly waitstaff into a pushy sales force. Our waiter at Vincent's tried to jack up the bill every time he visited the table. And for this we're supposed to tip him?
No wonder the fast-casual concept is becoming so popular. Now if they could just give us some flavor.
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.