Panini Passion

At the corner of Westheimer and Augusta, in full view of the celebrated Becks Prime live oak, sits the low-profile surprise of Cineplex-Odeon World: Milano's Cafe Italiano, a sleek little gelateria where the panini sandwiches are as crisp and triangular as the surroundings.

This may be the only ice-cream shop in town where the food matters more than the cold stuff. From lunchtime until 8 p.m., Milano's cooks up immaculate layerings of thin, herbed focaccia bread and a rainbow of fillings, all brushed with a bit of olive oil and basil pesto. The grilled eggplant version makes your run-of-the-mill deli sandwich look like a dull cousin indeed: strewn with roasted red-pepper strips and wafery eggplant rounds, held together with the barest trace of provolone cheese, punctuated with red onion, it possesses a crunch and lightness that is most unsandwichlike.

A restrained panini of smoked turkey, Cheddar and provolone is not the cheesy horror to which most places would subject you; instead, fresh spinach and Roma tomatoes put a spring in its step. And a combo of fennel-spiked Italian sausage with al dente peppers -- again, with just a gilding of provolone -- is as close as you'll come to sausage-eating without guilt.

Entertainingly enough, you can sit on a wooden deck and watch the hordes stream through the Becks drive-thru or surge in and out of the Spectrum multiplex parking lot right across the street -- our fractured version of street life. But the angular interior of this miniature cafe practically begs you to stay indoors, perched at a tiny marble table, handicapping the Euroclientele, bathed in the unusually pretty light. The surfaces fairly gleam, from the white-tile floor to the mirrored bar with its ranks of bottled syrups and wines. (They actually have decent wines by the glass, which makes Milano's a civilized stop for a quick supper before a movie; if they'd start serving the panini past 8 p.m., you could eat there afterward as well.)

There is passable espresso, too, and caffe latte that is rather too weak and lukewarm. A stiff four bucks buys you a concentrated form of pre-movie sustenance: the cappuccino frappe, a high-voltage milk shake made with espresso and vanilla gelato that will revise your outlook within minutes.

The gelato here has its ups and downs. Flavors like gianduia (hazelnut chocolate) and honey-marsala are rich and gratifying, but certain fakey, overbearing fruit flavors (save for a gentle apricot) go astray. Big deal. This is a useful, appealing place in a part of town that can use it, and the new owners -- who've rehabilitated Milano's over the past six months -- are on the right track.

-- Alison Cook

Milano's Cafe Italiano, 2611 Augusta, 784-8222.


grilled eggplant panini, $4.25


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