The osso buco at Nino's on West Dallas towered over the plate. It looked like a red lava-covered meat volcano rising from a sea of pasta. Sticking out of the crater in the top, a marrow spoon protruded.
I cut away a chunk of veal from the shank bone. It was extremely moist and falling-apart tender. I twirled up some of the cappellini (angel hair pasta) that surrounded the shank with a little of the meat and sauce. The combination was absolutely spectacular.
Then, with the tall skinny spoon, I coaxed a big dark luscious clump of marrow out of the middle of the bone. Osso buco means "pierced bone" in Italian, and the marrow bone is what the dish is all about. I ate some fatty marrow on the crusty Italian bread I found in the bread basket. I gave some to my lunch mate, Paul Galvani, and then I ate the rest with the pasta. There was plenty to go around. It was the best osso buco I've had in Houston, and it was actually just last night's leftovers.
Osso buco isn't on the menu at Nino's, but it's always the dinner special on Thursdays. If there is any left over, you can get it for lunch on Friday like I did. At $29, it's not exactly a cheap lunch, but it's a hell of a bargain for a primo chunk of osso buco.
On Thursday night, the osso buco is served with the traditional risotto. The Friday lunch special came with cappellini. So we asked for risotto on the side, just to sample some. Galvani, who is the marketing director for Houston rice giant Riviana Foods, commented that the risotto wasn't firm in the middle; it tasted a little gloppy.
What a lot of Houston restaurants call risotto is plain white rice with some additives. When we asked the waiter at Nino's what kind of rice they used, he went to the kitchen and came back with a bag of super-premium Italian Arborio. So that wasn't the problem. Maybe the risotto was left over from last night. I was glad I was eating the pasta.
I was also delighted with Nino's spectacular bread basket. Unable to choose between the focaccia, the slices of rustic bread, the bread sticks and all the other varieties, I simply ate them all. And then I sent the basket back for a refill. The bread here comes with a plate of minced olives and other marinated vegetables in a deep puddle of extra virgin olive oil. You eat the bread while sopping up the oily goodies.
The zuppa di pesce that my lunch mate ordered was a magnificent fish stock with some watery shrimp and mussels in it. Galvani observed that the shrimp didn't pick up any of the color or flavor of the soup. He speculated that they had been boiled or steamed separately and were added when the dish was ordered. It's a practical shortcut that makes for a second-rate soup.
It was a beautiful day, so we finished our lunch on Nino's patio with espressos and ice cream at an outdoor table beside the gelato cart.
The Mandola family converted a turn-of-the-century grocery building here into Nino's restaurant exactly 30 years ago, in 1977. Over time, they bought up most of the block on West Dallas Street between Montrose and Waugh and added two sister restaurants, Vincent's and Grappino di Nino. Most of that area is devoted to the parking lot. But the complex formed by the three restaurants is one of the most idyllic dining destinations in the city.
Nino's remains the family's flagship restaurant. With its terrazzo floors, antique furnishings, newly renovated bar and wood-burning pizza oven, Nino's has long been considered one of Houston's best trattorias. The service is friendly and efficient, and the wait staff is well-informed.
Vincent's was created as a more casual cafe to take care of the overflow from Nino's. But Vincent's became famous in its own right for its specialty, lemon-and-garlic rotisserie chicken. Unfortunately, the high-pressure wait staff at Vincent's pushes bottled water and other extras like a bunch of used car salesmen on commission.
Grappino di Nino started out as a bar and outdoor patio where you could linger over espresso and an after-dinner drink. The landscaper who created the maze of brick patios, courtyards and outdoor tables that connect the restaurants has won awards for his design. The highlight of the exterior is the dramatically lit garden, romantic fountain and cozy arbor of Grappino di Nino with its dozens of outdoor tables. It is one of the most beautiful al fresco dining spots in the city, and it's open late. The Mandola family has responded to the public's enthusiasm to Grappino di Nino by introducing live music on the patio and expanding the menu. You can now get appetizers, miniature pizzas and a few entrées outside.
The wine list at Nino's is short, boring and old-school. But there is a great selection of grappas. The first time I had dinner at Nino's, I finished the meal off with an aromatic Moscato grappa and an espresso at an outdoor table at Grappino's while I listened to a odd rendition of "Imagine" performed by a sincere young man with an acoustic guitar. It was a pleasant end to an otherwise mediocre meal.
Seafood is not Nino's strong suit, as I discovered that night. I had the linguine pescatore, or fisherman's pasta, which is one of my favorite red-tablecloth Italian dishes. I clutched my napkin to my shirtfront in anticipation of an overflowing bowl of seafood and spaghetti in an exuberant sauce. What I got were a few clumps of twirled pasta with a little seafood sitting in the bottom of a bowl that looked mostly empty. What happened to the sauce?
My dining companion ordered the menu item called "branzino," which is described as "grilled red snapper, fresh lump crabmeat, sundried tomato, pinenuts and lemon butter." She didn't like the dish much. The piece of her fish that I tasted was overcooked. But the larger question was the nomenclature. Grilled red snapper and fresh lump crabmeat is a classic dish in this part of the world. Why is Nino's calling it "branzino," which is the Italian name for Mediterraean sea bass?
Branzino is a wonderful flaky fish that's being farm-raised in Italy these days. You can get it at upscale Houston Italian restaurants like Da Marco and even in good ethnic joints like Alexander the Great Greek. Last summer, in his blog "Diner's Journal," Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, complained that three out of four restaurants in New York were offering branzino as the fish special. And he was getting tired of it.
So if Vincent Mandola wants to serve branzino, why doesn't he buy some?
On my last visit to Nino's, I shared a terrific Margherita pizza with Paul Galvani. It was crisp on the bottom and lightly dressed on the top, so it stayed crunchy. A generous shaving of parmesan over the top didn't hurt anything either.
We also sampled some excellent eggplant-stuffed panzotti pasta pillows in a light tomato-and-basil sauce. Galvani thought he detected some butternut squash in the filling. We split these, along with a monster veal chop cooked medium-rare. The chop was good, but a little gristly.
On a trip to the restroom, I stopped to take a look at a framed magazine story that hung on the wall. It was published in the Houston Post Sunday magazine, I think it said in January 1988. The Mandolas were the top restaurant family in town at the time. On the cover were brothers Damian, Vincent and Tony in their youthful glory.
On my way back to my table, I saw Vincent Mandola 20 years older. He was sitting with his family over a late lunch. Mary Mandola is responsible for the brilliant job of decorating and designing the restaurants. Vincent and Mary are also partners with their two namesake daughters, Vinceanne Mandola Green and Mary Dana Corbett, in the fast-casual Pronto Cucinino restaurant on Montrose. The second location of Pronto Cucinino is scheduled to open on West Holcombe Boulevard near Buffalo Speedway this June. It's good to see the next generation getting involved in the business.
I couldn't help but admire the sight of Vincent Mandola with his flowing silver mane and beard. The brash young chef of the 1980s has become the lion in winter. Sure, I have some quibbles about his menu and the food at Nino's. But you don't go to Nino's, Vincent's or Grappino di Nino for a cutting-edge dining experience. You go because the Mandola family has created an incredible oasis of Italian hospitality on West Dallas Street. And it's always a pleasure to be there.
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