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Pasta Tense

There's something oddly unsettling about Houston's new generation of takeout food emporia. Cross the threshold of Yapa or Ferrari Fresh Pasta, and say hello to deja vu: the same wooden trusses and ductwork slice up the space overhead; the same roasted squabs, mozzarella-layered portobellos and platters of emerald broccoli rabe beckon from identically positioned display cases. The Yapa grilled vegetable array is a dead ringer for the one at Ferrari; the Empire Baking Company loaves at Ferrari echo the ones at Yapa. To the rear lurk similar layouts of wines and multi-flavored sheets of fresh pasta, ready to be cut to order.

Two doppelgänger slogans involving the words "Kitchen Fresh" greet you, along with eagerly -- almost frighteningly -- helpful staffers. Both shops live next door to a Marble Slab Creamery. Both inhabit a Disney World-like new shopping center (Yapa's Neo-Italian-Renaissance, Ferrari's Neo-Mediterranean) anchored by one of those awesome new megamarkets (Yapa's a Randall's Flagship, Ferrari's a Kroger Signature Store).

What's up? Just another food-world divorce, the familiar push-and-pull over philosophy and control that causes many a joint venture to go astray. Ruggles' Bruce Molzan, who recently fled Auntie Pasto's (lately rechristened Eddie Minelli's), knows all about this sort of thing. So does Arturo Boada, now exiled from the menu he shaped at Cabo. The four principals of Yapa and Ferrari are simply the latest to join this awkward minuet. In the beginning, with visions of Dean & DeLuca dancing in their heads, the foursome planned to storm the upscale Houston takeout market together. After that -- on to other cities, the great dream of every modern, red-blooded American food entrepreneur.

Last fall the quartet hired a chef, Culinary Institute of America graduate Scott Miller, to develop a menu. They set about turning Ava and George Ferrari's fresh pasta shop in Second Baptistland, which had been supplying restaurants and retail customers since 1983, into a more rustic version of the projected Yapa look. They tried out their new Yapa dishes on Ferrari's customers and experimented to find just the right wines, just the right olives, just the right cheeses and breads. But at the last minute, with the first Yapa set to open at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, everybody got cold feet.

Ava and George Ferrari opted to stay with their family-owned store, which now had a distinctly Yapa-ized overlay. Yapa partners Walter Athols and Mark Lewis, together with chef Miller, decided to go it alone. They are painfully polite about their differences, but apparently the divorce was not entirely amicable: the Ferrari fresh pasta is rather pointedly missing from the Yapa enterprise (which uses the local Milano as a source instead). Of Miller's recipes, which linger on at Ferrari, Yapa's Athols says carefully, "We didn't feel it appropriate to take them back." It's the food world's equivalent of joint custody.

Whatever the discomforts of the split, Houston is the richer for it. Each establishment has its own strengths and weaknesses; beyond the surface similarities, each has its own personality and food style. Both are useful amenities for their respective neighborhoods -- or for anyone who has company coming for dinner and only 20 minutes to get ready, or who simply wants to eat well at home with a minimum of effort. Now that summer, when turning on the stove seems a criminal act, is upon us, Yapa and Ferrari are especially welcome sources for classy cold suppers.

Yapa in particular delivers some sophisticated goods, painstakingly hand-labeled or packaged in slick Yapa graphics. Within its sleek white refrigerated showcase dwell some of the best rotisseried chickens that money can buy: plump, organically raised squab that have been rubbed under their burnished skins with dizzyingly herbed and garlicked citrus pesto. The flavors penetrate. Every last, lemony-orange trace of pesto demands to be licked off your fingers. Even the breast meat is moist down to the bone, a rarity in a world where chickens are all too often rotisseried into oblivion (more on that later).

Carve up one of these exemplary birds. Add some of Yapa's grilled vegetables: skinny slabs of zucchini and yellow squash and eggplant, nicely striped and charred tasting, boosted by a lively balsamic vinegar marinade. Color? A couple of the lush tomato wheels from the grilled vegetable assortment and a crisp green vegetable, perhaps broccoli tossed with sesame, a tinge of soy and tendrils of lemon zest. Pour a glass of chilled white wine direct from Yapa's cold case. Sit on your terrace, or under your fig tree. Consider the possibility that summer in the tropics isn't half bad.

Much of Yapa's appeal springs from its everything-under-one-roof convenience. There, in one spot, are assembled the wares the dedicated foodie would otherwise have to chase around town acquiring: immaculate Empire bread loaves; a pre-chilled quart of San Pellegrino; Dolce & Freddo sorbets; a glistening, puckery lemon tart or a trembly blackberry creme brulee from perfectionist Marilyn Descours. They're not cheap, but time is money. Feel like starting out with some of Paula Lambert's ethereal fresh mozzarella, direct from Dallas? You've got it. Need some boutique baby greens for a salad? Those too, albeit in a state that may approach limpness toward day's end. There are even interesting Yapa salad dressings in theatrical high-necked bottles; unfortunately those spectacular, narrow necks make it hard to pour the punchy sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.  

If you can extract the vinaigrette from its prison, though, it makes an apt summer dressing for one of Yapa's frozen ravioli -- perhaps the deep, dark wild-mushroom-and-spinach variety, which is perfect for a room-temperature treatment. It deserves better than the Tuscan tomato sauce -- perfectly adequate, but still just adequate -- it gets in Yapa's prepared-foods section. Better yet is a peppery, emphatic grilled-vegetable filling folded inside graceful red-pepper pasta that makes for ravioli so exuberant they require nothing more than a little olive oil in the way of adornment.

Do naked ravioli make you nervous? If so, toss them with a bare minimum of Yapa's ingenious corn-and-red-onion salsa, an instant local classic that packs some convincing heat. The fire-roasted tomato salsa, with its charred bottom notes, is almost as good. So why is the salsa verde so timid, and so inappropriately sweet? That's one of Yapa's little mysteries, as was one afternoon's crop of tough, sinewy broccoli rabe, deceptively gorgeous in the still life that is the prepared foods case. Likewise the dispiriting preponderance of browns in that still life: it seems unwise to take a chance on moussaka that resembles river sludge and grilled portobellos that look like something one might encounter in a cow pasture.

If Yapa is not quite ready to conquer Houston, much less the world, they're working on it. An encouraging air of ferment simmers through this sleekly contemporary room. Partner Mark Lewis, an ex-Yalie wrestler who went on to found a small San Francisco takeout chain, prowls the premises soliciting customer feedback and offering samples of new ideas; the bushy-tailed counter staff hands out tastes of tarragon-and-chutney-laced chicken salad or smoky, compelling cabbage-and-green-apple slaw as if they were the latest flavors at Baskin Robbins. Pleasant surprises rear their heads: last week's visitors got first crack at some lovely vegetarian summer rolls, their cabbage-and-bean-curd stuffing galvanized by a hint of red-peppery kim chee, their cool, rice-paper wrappers edged in dramatic black seaweed. With Yapa's honey-lime dressing, they're a Houston summer's answer to the sandwich -- not to mention a reason to keep coming back.

Miles away at Voss and San Felipe, Ferrari Fresh Pasta shows a less gung-ho face, a more Old World feel. It may be laid out much like Yapa, but with its rustic carts, warm colors and tumble of baskets, it has the feel of a country kitchen rather than a cutting-edge culinary lab. The food follows suit. While eclectic Yapa-esque dishes remain, the selection runs more to traditional Italian with Southwestern overtones; the emphasis falls on the delicate fresh pastas the Ferraris do well.

Some of the Yapa ideas serve the Ferraris better than others. Their grilled vegetables are every bit the equals of those across town, and their broccoli rabe, showered with golden garlic bits, is vastly more tender and appealing than its cross-town cousin. But the rotisserie squab here can be as dry as the desert, its glossy good looks and lemony-winy skin notwithstanding. The fire-roasted peppers have all the charm of brine-packed, processed whole pimentos. And the grilled portobello mushrooms may look prettier than Yapa's, but fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves and a cap of sun-dried tomato cannot cancel out the off-putting bitterness of this pricey faux-lasagna.

Better to take home one of Ferrari's real lasagnas, which display a better balance of pasta to filling than do Yapa's gooier ones. Ferrari's Southwestern chicken lasagna is terrific, from its thin sheets of jalapeno-cilantro noodles (here, at last, are flavored pastas that actually taste like something) to its discreetly handled spicy tomato sauce and equally discreet cheeses. Twenty-five minutes in a 350-degree oven, or a little more if the lasagna is from the frozen case as opposed to the fresh case, and you're in business.

The other good bets here are a highly comforting eggplant Parmesan that heats up nicely, and an adventurous salad of Southwestern ravioli filled with pureed red beans. Surprise: it really works, especially tossed together with corn, scallion, cilantro and diced tomato for an effect that is at once tart and hot, with small punctuation marks of natural vegetable sweetness.

Other items fall into the ambivalent zone. Elegantly thin goat-cheese manicotti are so pungently flavored that they don't wear well -- particularly when an irrelevant and strangely sour marinara is added to their light pesto glaze. A salad of orzo pasta, feta cheese and sun-dried tomato has a similar, powerfully strong affect. Dusky wild-mushroom ravioli come cloaked, like Yapa's, in a standard tomato sauce that isn't worthy of them. And the desserts, which run to sliced cheesecakes, don't exhibit the take-me-home visual appeal that radiates from Yapa's Marilyn Descours pastries.  

Neither does Yapa's fierce ambition radiate from this homey, countrified room. The selection at Ferrari is more limited, and more erratic: on any given day, there are liable to be just a few sauces, let alone the multitudinous relishes, dressings, soups and world-beat condiments that Yapa feels obliged to present. Maybe that particular filled pasta you had your heart set on will be available; maybe it won't. Even the lunches dispensed from Ferrari's corner counter seem catch-as-catch can, regardless of what the small chalkboard menu may say. A chicken-salad sandwich? Sorry, the chef hasn't made any more yet; one customer ordered two of them, so we ran out. How about that great-sounding slaw? Out of that, too.

When a sandwich of racily marinated Bolivian pork is produced, somehow its potential for greatness fizzles; housed on an Empire Baking Company onion roll, it comes off as too dry and undressed for its own good. Fine, locally made Candelari Italian sausage (also available, along with a sibling of the Bolivian pork, at Yapa) consorts with peppers and onion on a slab of Empire focaccia. Thanks to the doughy bread -- virtually the only thing Empire doesn't do well -- this sandwich has the heft of an unabridged dictionary.

The lunches, like Ferrari and Yapa themselves, appear to be in transition. A year from now, Ferrari may well be more itself and less a not-quite-Yapa, which is as it should be. And Yapa may have smoothed out to become the first-rate food mecca it so clearly wants to be. Meanwhile, I intend to enjoy the fact that Houston's upper-end takeout options have expanded beyond Whole Foods and Leibman's. It's about time.

Yapa, 3173 West Holcombe, 664-9272;
Ferrari Fresh Pasta, 1345 South Voss, 785-6337.

rotisserie squab with citrus pesto, $6.95;
grilled-vegetable ravioli, $6.95/lb.;
corn and red onion salsa, $3.95.

Southwestern lasagna, $7 and $12;
red-bean ravioli salad, $5.95/lb.


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