Three sautéed jumbo shrimp arrived in a pool of a creamy lemon-garlic emulsion that looked like mayonnaise. They were gently cooked so they stayed juicy, and the sauce was so good, three of us fought over it with our bread. At Nick's Pasta Place on Bellaire, the appetizers come with complimentary garlic bread -- perfect for sopping up the sauce. We also ordered a pizza Margherita for starters. The crust was too thick and doughy to make my short list of top Houston pizzas, but since the pie was hot out of the oven and gooey with cheese, we managed to choke down half of it in five minutes.
At the next table, three urchins banged their silverware and crumbled their garlic bread obnoxiously while their parents, who were seated at the other end of the long table, did their best to ignore them.
It was a Friday evening around seven, and I counted a total of 14 kids and 28 adults eating dinner. Yeah, sure, Nick's Pasta Place is a family restaurant in Bellaire. But if I wanted to spend the evening with other people's kids, I'd take up baby-sitting, I fumed to my tablemates.
"We're kids, too," observed one of my teenagers, who was seated at the table.
"My kids don't count," I declared.
For an entrée, I got linguine pescatore, a huge bowl of pasta with shrimp, squid, mussels in their shells, and chopped clams all tossed in a well-made tomato sauce. Sprinkled liberally with crushed red pepper, it reminded me of the seafood fra diavolo I used to get in inexpensive red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants between New York and Boston.
The tablecloths aren't red-and-white at Nick's, but the restaurant is pretty informal. The room is a square with two glass walls, one facing Bellaire Boulevard and the other looking out on a verdant, vine-shaded outdoor dining area with a stone fountain at the far end. The wall above the kitchen area is painted with a cartoon Italian chef and two waiters carrying overflowing trays of pasta.
My daughter's order of linguine in red clam sauce turned out to be a mountain of pasta completely covered with chopped clams. Both of our seafood pasta bowls were so enormous, we ended up taking as much food home as we consumed at the table. You've got to love a restaurant that sends you home from dinner with tomorrow's lunch.
"Dad, look at that kid," my daughter whispered, indicating one of the urchin boys. The silverware-banging and roll-crumbling had ended when the kids got their dinners. Now two of them were splitting an order of spaghetti and meatballs. But the third one, who was facing us, was stuffing his little mouth with calamari.
"He's eating the tentacles!" my daughter squealed triumphantly. She was taking the kids' side in this debate, and I have to admit she was winning.
"He's okay. I'll eat with kids like that anytime," I had to admit. The Cafe section readers of tomorrow have to get their squid tentacles somewhere, after all.
Upscale restaurants like Bank by Jean-Georges wave the name of their celebrity chef like a flag. But the odds of finding Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Bank are about the same as finding a pearl necklace in your oyster.
Nick's Pasta Place represents the opposite scenario. The woman who owns the business, Gina Koutros, never seems to leave. She greets customers by name at the door and circulates around the restaurant checking on the food, the service and everything else. She is a warm and nurturing personality whose constant presence ensures that nothing ever falls between the cracks. But her name is missing from the sign.
"Who is Nick?" I asked her on the phone. In person, she was very friendly. But the question agitated her.
Nick's Pasta Place was founded by a guy named Nick about ten years ago, she told me. Koutros, who is Greek, bought the place eight and a half years ago and built it into a hugely successful neighborhood restaurant by dint of her hard work and long hours.
"When you talk about my restaurant, I don't want it associated with Nick," she said.
"Um, you don't want Nick's Pasta Place to be associated with Nick?" I asked incredulously. "Have you thought about changing the name?"
"That's just the name on a sign," she said. "It's my restaurant. He opened it, and he couldn't handle it. He lasted for only a year and a half."
And then Koutros decided not to answer any more questions until I proved I was with the Houston Press. "You will have to come to the restaurant in person and show me a badge," she said.
Dang! I always wanted a badge.
After talking to the editor in chief to confirm my credentials, Gina Koutros called me back and apologized. She was very gracious. It's just that she and Nick have some unpleasant history she doesn't want to get into.
My first experience with the pasta place of "he whose name should not be mentioned" was a take-out dinner. Sticking to the tried-and-true, we got an order of baked lasagna and some baked ravioli with meat sauce and cheese.
Both dishes were covered in a thick layer of mozzarella that trailed behind the spoon in long strings when you attempted to dish the food out. The red sauce was not too sweet, and not too watery, and the fillings were tangy with lots of Parmesan. It was Italian comfort food at its finest.
For our second experience, we went and checked out the place in person. After an appetizer of so-so mussels and some boring dinner salads, we looked for exciting main dishes. The waiter told us that the pistachio-crusted chicken was the best thing on the menu. And I can see why he thought so. The thick chicken breast was served hot and crisp with crunchy pistachio pieces and topped with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and green onions on a plate with lots of rich, creamy white-wine sauce. It was rich, all right -- and quite tasty. But it was a mid-level American cuisine sort of dish that seemed out of place among the red sauces and meatballs.
That night, my companion had the special veal scallopini, which comes with peas, black olives and mushrooms in a Marsala wine sauce. The sauce was thick and old-fashioned, and the veal was a tad overdone. The grilled salmon turned out to be a dieter's dish, with a large chunk of well-done fish and little else on the plate.
This was also the first time I tried the linguine pescatore, or fisherman's pasta. The waiter asked if I wanted white sauce or red sauce. I asked which he recommended. He suggested the white, so I gave it a try.
I was thinking of the white sauce that's often served on pasta con vongole, or clam spaghetti, which is little more than white wine, olive oil and garlic. What I got was an Alfredo-like cream sauce. It was way too heavy. But I was impressed by the amount of seafood in the bowl. The main reason for our third and final "family night" visit was to sample the fisherman's pasta with the red sauce. And it was well worth it.
I highly recommend this place for the pasta and red-sauce dishes. The Italian-American cuisine doesn't aim very high, but it seldom misses. While Houstonians are lucky to have high-end authentic Italian restaurants like Da Marco, Arcodoro and Simposio, we are equally blessed to have the free garlic bread and large Caesar salads at places like Gina's. Even if the spaghetti and meatballs tend to attract a disproportionate number of diners in diaper pants.
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