Pasta Point of No Return

I've been feeling philosophical of late. And I don't mean the God thing. Stuff like that I leave to lesser minds. My concerns go deeper. Like, why do some restaurants consistently overcook? Is it habit? Perversity? Poor training? A desire to go bankrupt as quickly as possible? It's hard to say. But I will tell you this: It annoys the hell out of me. And I want it to stop.

Mingalone Italian Bar and Grill, at Bayou Place, is a case in point. The linguine was overdone. The fettuccine was overdone. Even the lasagna noodles were overdone. And I could go on. I'm a generous man, but Mingalone seriously tried my patience, which, the first time I visited, developed stress fractures, and the second time, needed reconstructive surgery.

To get through these meals, I resorted to a strategy said to have been used by Victorian women in Britain when their husbands wanted sex: They closed their eyes and thought of England. I thought of England a lot in Mingalone. And it didn't always help. Oxford's gleaming spires were no match for the fried calamari, and there were moments when the lasagna verdi blotted out the Norfolk broads. Eating the linguine Liguria, another image came to mind: the Mingalone kitchen crew languishing in the Tower of London. It was said of Odysseus that "more than all other men, (he) was born for pain." Phooey, I say. Was Odysseus ever made to eat Mingalone's calamari? No, he was not.

It gives me no pleasure to complain like this. It was Cyril Connelly, I think, who said that it takes as much time and effort to write a bad book as it does a good one. I feel much the same about meals. But something isn't working in Mingalone, and I'd like to know why. Is the problem a lack of supervision? Are the recipes imprecise? Or maybe morale is low. I've never set foot in the kitchen, but to judge from the food, it's a slough of despair.

Remember that Woody Allen joke about the women discussing the hotel they're staying in? "The food's awful," says one. "Yes," the other agrees. "And the portions are so small." That couldn't be said of Mingalone. The kitchen treats diners as if they'd just been airlifted from a desert island where, for 15 years, they'd existed on nothing but seawater.

The servings at Mingalone would give even Balzac pause. (A great eater, Balzac. For lunch, this man thought nothing of polishing off a hundred oysters, a dozen lamb chops, a duck, two partridges and a Normandy sole.) Were the food good, this might not matter. But when it's not, what's the point? Which brings me to another of life's perplexing questions: Why is it that restaurants known for serving really big portions are almost invariably those whose food is not the kind you'd want to eat a lot of?

The food at Mingalone isn't all bad. The bread -- porous and rustic and boasting a killer crust -- is delicious. And the zuppa di Cavolo ($4), a soup made up of cabbage, beans and prosciutto, was light and clean, all its flavors nicely delineated. The pizza marinara ($7.95) wasn't bad, either -- though I wish it hadn't been so bashful. One doesn't expect shyness in a pizza. But the fried calamari ($5.95), instead of being nicely resilient, were chewy. The linguine Liguria ($12.95) also disappointed. Pasta tossed with green beans, shrimp and scallops, it arrived fairly dripping with pesto. If, as is said, one can drown in a saucer of water, there was sufficient pesto here to do in all of Katy. Nor is this dish value for money. There was linguine galore -- altogether too much of it, in fact -- but rather less evident were the vaunted shrimp and scallops. After a thorough search, we did succeed in locating two of each. Though it was hardly worth the trouble. The shrimp -- surprise! surprise! -- were so overcooked, they had no flavor, and the scallops, rare for this kitchen, hadn't been cooked enough.

To Mingalone's other quirks, add this: From time to time, it's apt to pull surprises -- most of them unpleasant. The chicken alla cacciatore ($11.95) more resembled chicken marsala, the sauce so reduced -- it was almost a demi-glace -- it clung to the plate as if for dear life. (I was reminded of someone on the observation deck of the Empire State Building who discovers suddenly he's afraid of heights.) The accompanying polenta was horribly oversalted. But even worse was its consistency: a nasty, sticky thing, it might be useful in patching walls.

Another surprise was provided by the sarde a beccafico ($6). "Baked fresh sardines stuffed with pine nuts, bread crumbs and currants," said the menu. But the kitchen had other ideas, and the sardines arrived unstuffed. There were three of them in all, curled like startled caterpillars and set at intervals around an orange salad so overpowering, the sardines didn't stand a chance. (Think of it as Joe Roach taking on George Foreman.) The menu here is not what you'd call ambitious, which means the kitchen doesn't have to make a lot of decisions. Which is all to the good, because, when it does make one, it's often wrong-headed.

I made every effort to be fair to Mingalone. I went there first in mid-December -- when the place had been open a month -- and returned in mid-January. But the experience both times was much the same: indifferent. Some restaurants begin badly and gain in vigor. Others start well and run out of steam. Mingalone, on the evidence so far, plans to proceed the way it started: not really caring one way or the other.

Mingalone could be a first-rate restaurant. It looks terrific, the ambiance is great and the service staff is pleasant to a fault. There's a wonderful bustle about the place. And the diners here do seem to bond. The four men at the table next to mine acted as if they'd climbed Everest together, or had played on the same Davis Cup team. Just think what the place would be like were the food any good.

The restaurant's logo is a stylized eye, inspired, according to owner Antonio Mingalone, by his late father, who "always kept his eye on the cash register." I don't know Mr. Mingalone, but because I'd like to see him succeed, I'm going to offer a word of advice. Forget the cash register, and keep your eye -- both eyes -- on the kitchen. And I'd do it right away, if I were you. There isn't a moment to lose.

Mingalone Italian Bar and Grill, 540 Texas (in Bayou Place), 223-0088.


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