Lingering Over the Linguine
It was a cool evening, one of the first of the season, so we were eager to sit outside on the patio at Giacomo's (pronounced JOCK-a-mo's), the new Italian cafe on Westheimer. It drizzled now and then, but the big umbrella over our table kept us dry as we drank a bottle of plonk and made a dinner out of salumi e formaggi, as sliced meats and cheese are known in Italy.
$40 is the high end of the blackboard wine list at Giacomo's. We got a bottle of $20 Sangiovese that was quite serviceable with the cold cuts. The cured meat plate came with prosciutto, thin slices of Genoa and rounds of hard salami, grilled chicken sausage and some chunks of mortadella studded with pistachios. The cheese plate was loaded with a wonderfully stinky fontina, a creamy gorgonzola, a hard Romano and another cheese that might have been an asiago. Too bad the baguettes were chewy and tough. The thin baguette slices that had been toasted into croutons made excellent crackers. We also got a bowl of white beans in a tuna sauce that made an unusual dip.
The sun went down, the street lights came on and we were still hanging out on the patio talking and drinking wine.
The relaxed vibe is the main attraction at Giacomo's, but you'd never guess that when you first walk in the front door. You walk right into a cafeteria line, where you are assaulted with too many choices. There are cold dishes lined up under a sneeze guard, one blackboard with sandwiches and pastas, and then another blackboard with more pastas and entrées. A giant blackboard wine list occupies another entire wall. The flood of information makes you dizzy, and meanwhile you are holding up the next person in line.
It wasn't until my second visit, when I ordered takeout from the restaurant's Web site, that I figured out what was going on. Giacomo's classifies its fare as cibo subito, or counter food; cibo rapido, or fast food; and cibo lento, or slow food. The restaurant could make the ordering process much easier by printing the Web site info on a menu.
When I phoned in, I tried to order the trio from the counter menu called a tramezzini with truffled egg salad, marinated poached chicken in tuna caper sauce, and asparagus, prosciutto and fontina frittata. But the woman on the phone told me that the menu item had been discontinued because nobody ordered it. Too bad; it sounded interesting.
The standout dish in the "counter food" section was a slice of poached turkey breast in a tuna-flavored mayonnaise sauce with capers. It's a takeoff on the famous Italian dish vitello tonnato, or cold veal in tuna sauce. It sounds weird if you've never tried it, but once you eat it you can't get enough of it. I wonder if this terrific summery dish will be replaced as the weather turns colder. The counter selections change constantly, but the selection usually includes white bean salad, Italian peppers in olive oil, and various other roasted and marinated vegetables served at room temperature.
The pasta dishes are divided between the fast food and slow food sections, which is annoying. The best pasta dish I tried at Giacomo's was tortellini bietola, on the fast food menu. It's described as "half moon pasta stuffed with Swiss chard, ricotta and goat cheese, served in sage butter." A dairy-lover's dream, these rich little pillows of oozy cheese goo float in a lake of melted butter. Less successful on the fast food pasta menu was the tagliatelle alla Bolognese. The excellent housemade pasta was served in a clumpy congealed meat sauce that left the noodles dry.
The worst item I sampled at Giacomo's was the orecchiette giorgione, little ear pasta with broccoli rabe and spicy lamb meatballs. The bitter greens, gamy, peppery meatballs and bland little pasta shells all struck out in different directions, and there was nothing to pull the wildly divergent flavors together.
Secondi means "main course" in Italian dining. It's usually an unadorned piece of meat or fish on a large plate and has always been my least favorite part of a traditional Italian meal. Giacomo's offers five main courses, a chicken breast in butter and herbs, spicy shrimp, a hanger steak, a whole trout and a pork chop sautéed in butter and garnished with frisée and shaved fennel. Why the pork chop is the only entrée with a garnish is a mystery.
We ordered the grilled hanger steak medium-rare, and it came to the table perfectly cooked to a rosy red with a tasty black crust. The juicy meat was chewier than the average filet or rib eye, but there was more character to the texture and flavor. As I sliced the steak, it left behind a pool of garlicky blood that begged to be sopped up with a bread crust. If the steak looks too lonely there on the plate all by itself, you can order the side dish of roasted potatoes with onions.
The whole grilled rainbow trout seasoned with rosemary and lemon had a crispy skin with moist meat underneath and a lovely aroma thanks to the herbs and citrus. But without so much as a parsley leaf to hide behind, the fish looked naked. We got a side order of broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil and garlic. The stalks were good and crunchy, and there were plenty of big garlic slices mixed in.
Desserts include six flavors of gelato supplied by the fabulous Gelato Blu outfit and a lusciously tart lemon pie. The espresso, which comes from Katz Coffee, is a mellow, low-acid roast that complemented the light Italian meal.
Owner Lynette Hawkins, formerly of La Mora, has said that the concept of Giacomo's is based on the Venetian wine bars where she used to hang around with friends. Like what you get in a Spanish tapas bar, the food in these places is served on small plates and tends toward snacks that go well with vino.
It isn't really the quality of the food that makes Giacomo's so enjoyable. In truth, the marinated vegetables and traditional pastas here aren't nearly as sophisticated or inventive as the octopus and cannellini beans or chicken liver risotto that Marco Wiles is serving at his salumi and Italian wine bar, Poscol, right down the street.
Hawkins has succeeded in creating a restaurant and wine bar that captures the essence of Italian city life and the spirit of the slow food movement. It's all about the art of savoring the moment. There is an old wooden table under a shaded arbor on the patio at Giacomo's that invites you to slow down, linger over your linguine and have another glass of wine.
Sometimes you want exciting, skillfully prepared Italian food in a restaurant that's the center of the social scene. And sometimes you just want to hang out and nurse a glass of wine and bowl of olives in peace. I'm betting Giacomo's rustic Italian food, cheap, easy-drinking wines and big, comfortable patio are going to make it a very appealing hangout as the weather cools off.
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