The funghi ripieni are one of the best things on the menu.
Troy Fields

The oversized mushrooms look impressive on the plate, but they are tough -- tough in that leathery, spongy way that indicates they're past their prime. The spinach, cheese and crabmeat filling with which they're stuffed is a bland, vaguely gritty concoction. All things considered, it's a pretty sad appetizer.

Our waiter has told us that this is his personal favorite on the menu. And no, this isn't just another case of waitstaff trying to pad the bill. Just moments earlier, this same waiter was considerately steering us away from a monstrous antipasti platter at twice the price. "Oh, no, that is too much food for two people," he said in an accent lightly tinged by Mediterranean or Middle Eastern roots.

And the waiter seems to be right -- those decidedly second-rate "funghi ripieni" may indeed be among the best things on the menu. Certainly nothing else I had at Villagio's Italian Grill soared noticeably beyond that. This is a mediocre Italian restaurant apparently struggling to make a go of it in the upscale Galleria/Tanglewood area, where incomes are high and expectations are higher. Given the paltry patronage I saw on two evening visits, the expectations aren't being met.


Villagio's Italian Grill

777 San Felipe, 713-974-1111.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Insalata Caesar: $4.95

Minestrone di patata: $3.50

Funghi ripieni: $6.95

Bistecca di Toscana: $14.95

Snapper vaschetta arrostiti: $15.95

Tiramisu: $4.95

Villagio's has been in this swank strip center on San Felipe for nearly three years, but management changed several months ago. The current owners seem to be pulling out all the stops to make a go of it. They've added lunch and dinner service on Sundays. It's a BYOB establishment with a modest $3 per bottle corkage fee. On Mondays through Thursdays, the house wines are an eye-popping $2 per glass with dinner. Besides fare like manicotti, veal parmigiana, margherita pizza and minestrone, there's hamburgers and Philly cheese steaks on the "American Favorites" side of the menu. There's also free delivery (within a three-mile radius) and catering.

Clearly, Villagio's is doing everything it possibly can to drum up business -- well, everything, that is, with the notable exception of using high-quality ingredients in the hands of a skilled kitchen staff.

Now, I say that (I truly hope) with little of the schadenfreude that snippy restaurant reviewers sometimes revel in. It's hard to run a restaurant, period. And it's damn hard to run a good restaurant. When I come across a struggling establishment like Villagio's, my inclination is not to sneer but to sigh.

No one intentionally sets out to run a disappointing restaurant. But there are just so many ways to go off track. The operation may be undercapitalized in the first place. Or cash flow doesn't kick in as expected. There can be inventory problems, tying up your credit line buying too much of this and not enough of that. It can be personnel issues, trying to maintain adequate waitstaff and line cooks in a highly competitive market. The chef can quit, and the only replacement available is a one-armed short order cook at Toddle House. Your third-hand meat cooler breaks down and the health inspector condemns 50 pounds of veal. The landlord doubles your rent because Starbucks may be interested in the site.

The surprise isn't that there are so many bad restaurants. It's that we have as many good ones as we do. I often joke that statistics show that four out of every three new restaurants will fail.

There is no doubt that Villagio's is making a good-faith effort, but just about everything that arrives at your table leaves you thinking, "Hmmm. I could have done this at home -- cheaper, quicker and better."

For one thing, there's just very little spirit or sass or seasoning in Villagio's dishes. They taste like they were fabricated by technicians following a how-to manual and using cut-rate components.

A lasagna al forno was a routine affair at best, with slightly rubbery pasta, a watery sauce and murky flavors. A "Vegitariana di Villagio's" pizza -- listed as one of the specialties of the house -- might have been better if the advertised arugula and artichoke hearts had actually been included on the pie. Instead, we ended up taking more than half of this insipid creation home and, the next day, easily transformed it into something more appetizing by adding a few grilled onions, red peppers, dollops of feta cheese, plus a healthy sprinkling of garlic powder and dribbles of balsamic vinegar. Voilà -- "Leftovers di Villagio's." Serve it to me like that at the outset and maybe I'll be back for more.

An order of snapper was smothered with a gloppy sauce of crabmeat, garlic and butter that didn't disguise the fact that the fish itself was dry and overcooked.

That same drenching tactic was employed to camouflage a thin, chewy piece of rib eye by virtually immersing it in a mushroom and cream sauce.

To be fair, not everything was disappointing. The bread was decent -- seemingly fresh and warm. A simple Caesar salad was perfectly acceptable. And a bowl of creamy potato soup proved to be the one dish at Villagio's that was clearly better than so-so.

Despite the generally second-class cuisine here, that doesn't mean some folks can't enjoy themselves. One evening, four couples occupied a long table and were making good use of the establishment's accommodating BYOB policy. They had brought along several bottles of various vinos and commandeered a waiter to keep their glasses refreshed. There was a great deal of laughter and spirited conversation.

Had I walked over and shared my razor-sharp insights about the quality of the food, they probably would have laughed with (and at) me, agreed whole-heartedly, then launched into another round of drinks. For them, Villagio's was a comfortable meeting place to break bread and socialize. If most of the food was scarcely up to the standards of an Olive Garden, so what? Would Olive Garden let them bring their own wine and appropriate a waiter for their exclusive use?

Similarly, when the weather's nice, there are a few tables outside where a handful of regulars while away the evening and take advantage of the $2-a-glass house wine. The wine I sampled wasn't top-notch, but it wasn't the sort of do-not-put-in-mouth plonk skeptics might expect.

What appears to be underwriting Villagio's right now is a steady weekday lunch trade feeding hungry employees from all the businesses nearby. Most of the evening menu is offered at midday for $4–$5 less per dish (except pizzas). But using lunch to prop up a faltering dinner trade can only last so long. Most likely, Villagio's will get better, or Villagio's will go away. Sigh.

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