Nundini: Straight from the Old Country
Get a feel for Nundini's "simpatico ambience" in our slideshow.
As you enter Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar on North Shepherd, just above the Katy Freeway, you are greeted by a wall of imported Italian pastas with wonderfully politically incorrect names like strozzapreti (priest stranglers) and anelli d'Africa (African rings, a pasta shape that Americans know from eating SpaghettiOs, but used traditionally in Italy to make baked pasta pies, like the Sicilian timballo di anelli alla palermitana).
As your gaze wanders to the right, you notice that there's a deli case filled with real-deal Italian cheeses: mozzarella di bufala (buffalo's milk mozzarella from Campania), burrata (the cream-filled plastic cheese from Apulia), Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, Grana Padano...In the "library" in the back of the delicatessen, there are imported Italian cookies, Italian jams, Italian extra-virgin olive oils — all neatly presented in sharp rows, just like in the "old country."
Then, as you make your way to the main dining room, you are welcomed by faux Greco-Roman statuettes and Italian marble Renaissance putti, basking in the warm light of the gently lit room. The walls are lined with wooden racks packed with wine bottles, and each section is demarcated by a handsome oval sign that reports the Italian region of origin together with the region's flag. To your left there's an open kitchen, and to your right a wine bar.
The waiter who seats you is a petite man with Mediterranean features and a head of hair I would kill for. His name is Roberto, and he's from Sicily. His horn-rimmed glasses offer a touch of panache, a counterpoint to the classic "waiter" black he dons nightly.
The simpatico ambience of this smallish Italian restaurant, which opened last year, is not surprising considering the fact that owner Giampaolo Nundini began working in the restaurant business in Tuscany in the 1960s and has supplied Houston's restaurants and food lovers with authentic Italian products since the 1980s.
According to his Facebook page, Nundini grew up in Rome, a street urchin whose life path was shaped by Boys' Town, a home for wayward young people founded by a priest in the wake of the Second World War. This story — like a scene from De Sica's Shoeshine or Pasolini's A Violent Life — is truly inspirational. Houston's leading purveyor of Italian food products, Giampaolo has a reputation for humor and love of good food — in fact, he calls himself "The Godfather of Food."
The bad news is that Giampaolo's knowledge and experience in the world of Italian gastronomy do not always translate well in his kitchen.
On the two occasions that I visited the restaurant in August, I was disappointed by a carbonara — a classic dish of central Italy — made with macaroni instead of long noodles, a flagrant transgression of the Italian culinary canon (an issue that had been resolved by my second visit). The pasta was overcooked and gooey and the sauce insipid.
A veal scaloppa alla milanese arrived not in the form of a breaded and crisply fried escalope but rather a soggy slice of veal that had been dredged in flour and poorly sautéed, resembling instead a scaloppina di vitello al limone (it was topped, in its sogginess, with two slices of lemon). One of the guests who joined me that evening ordered the scaloppina "Oscar." It was the same as my dish but topped with crab meat (traditionally this dish, named after King Oscar II of Sweden, is made using a veal chop or veal loin medallions and is layered with crab, lobster, asparagus and Béarnaise sauce).
The fettuccine alla papalina — fettuccine "for the pope," a dish purportedly favored by Pope Pius XII and a classic of Rome — arrived not with the de rigueur lightly fried prosciutto but with sliced (not crumbled) sausage rounds. The "creme" sauce was so thick and heavy and the noodles so overcooked, I gave up on this dish after two mouthfuls.
As much as I wanted to love Nundini, there's a glaring and sadly regrettable disconnect between Nundini's expertise and experience and the staff he has running the kitchen. The menu also features a number of dishes that are in no way related to pan-Italian cooking, like the Salad Kathrin, which came in the guise of dried-out supermarket mesclun mix, smoked salmon and greened hard-boiled egg and without the promised mozzarella di bufala.
Houston needs more and better Italian and Italianate food, and I'm looking forward to returning to Nundini as Nundini and his team get their sea legs.
In the meantime, I found that the restaurant does best when it keeps things simple, as in the classic spaghetti al pomodoro, cooked perfectly al dente, with an excellent balance of savory, sweet and tart (although a bit heavy on the garlic, a personal choice that I didn't mind at all).
I was also thrilled by the white pizza with bresaola, the air-dried beef of northern Italy. The crust was more like a savory flatbread than an Italian-style pizza, but it was well-seasoned and well-baked. And between the high-quality mozzarella and the truly superb bresaola (a category of Italian charcuterie that's rarely found in Texas and must be stored properly in order to ensure its correct service), you really couldn't lose with this dish. It was an ideal pairing for the restaurant's excellent wines-by-the-glass program.
Here is where Nundini truly won me over: Not only does the wine program feature a wide selection of more than reasonably priced wines by the glass, its across-the-board pricing adds a mere $6.50 to the wine's retail price for table service (and all of the wines are available for purchase retail).
I loved my glass of Rupicolo by Rivera (Apulia), a blend of Montepulciano and Nero di Troia, a classic entry from one of southern Italy's leading producers. At just $8 a glass, it was one of the most expensive offerings. It had the acidity I crave, dark red fruit flavors, balanced alcohol and the earthiness that expertly vinified Nero di Troia should deliver.
The Dolcetto d'Alba by Stroppiana (Piedmont), at $6.75 a glass (a remarkable price for a wine of this quality), was delicious. Vinified and aged in stainless steel, this wine showed the classic clean and food-friendly stone fruit flavors that make Dolcetto one of Italy's most popular table wines.
I also really liked the Dolcetto d'Alba by Dezzani, which I ordered by the bottle for $17.50 ($11 retail). This entry-tier offering by this respected (however commercial) Italian house was brilliant and couldn't have been priced more affordably.
In a city where sommeliers and wine directors often blame high markups on high taxes and storage issues, a list like Nundini's was a true and very welcome breath of fresh air. I also found the waiters to be generous with their tasting pours, and when I asked my server to open a fresh bottle of Orvieto (after I found the wine flaccid, most probably because the wine had been left open overnight), he was happy to oblige, never missing a beat in his friendliness and hospitality.
Between Giampaolo's knowledge of Italian cookery, the extraordinary materia prima that he and his staff have at their disposal, and a rocking wine program, there's no doubt in my mind that Nundini has all the right stuff to become one of Houston's Italian standbys.
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