The Fruit of Il Dio di Vin'

I hardly know what to make of Il Dio di Vin', the most curious and confounding restaurant I've encountered in almost a year of weekly reviewing. I can't decide if the mock-grotto decor is slightly grim or engagingly daffy. I don't know whether the food is good or bad (probably it's both). I can't recommend it with confidence, but a couple of the dishes I've sampled here continue to haunt me.

What I do know is this: Il Dio di Vin's mozzarella in carroza, a demanding affair to bring off, is the best in town; the house wines are exemplary; the ricotta cake and cannoli are cause for celebration; and I've never eaten so much garlic in my life. Even a braggart who swears that there's no such thing as too much garlic is liable to meet his or her match in this dimly lit, supremely aromatic room.

Just try to walk in here without smiling at the corny pink cove lighting, the Spanish moss trailing from the moldings and the bumpy, sculpted white surfaces that are meant to suggest a cave. A classical statue presides over a back corner; wax-shrouded Chianti bottles (remember those?) shed puddles of light at each table. The effect is at once fantastical and bare bones, ineffably weird yet somehow comforting.

The menu is a funny maze of Sicilian dialect, full of jaunty locutions such as "pull' 'n vin'" (which translates as chicken in a spicy red-wine stew). Even the restaurant's name, Il Dio di Vin', is informally rendered: that final apostrophe makes "vin" short for the Italian "vino" rather than some errant French stray. Being guided through this very ethnic document by a pleasant, decidedly non-Italian manager/headwaiter who has the mien of a displaced petroleum engineer makes the experience even curiouser.

But he knows his directions, at least when he points diners toward that mozzarella in carroza: my serving was splendid stuff, reminiscent of some ethereal French toast, the sauteed bread puffed high and light, the mild cheese more of a suggestion than an earthbound layer. Its lemon tinged olive-oil sauce was both graceful and strangely compelling, thanks to the merest hint of anchovy. A first course of stuffed clams ("vongole stuffat'," in Il Dio di Vin' speak) suffered by comparison, its clams regrettably shriveled in their shells, its sauce an almost yummy bread-crumb sludge with a truly maniacal garlic content.

I've had some encouraging pastas here -- good enough to mitigate some of the expensive clunkers I've run into farther down on the menu. Noodles here are straightforward things in the classic spaghetti shape, cooked precisely al dente and tossed with an authentic array of Southern Italian sauces. Pasta with an abundance of lemony, sauteed mushrooms, tiny bits of garlic and just enough red pepper for background was quietly spectacular; this perfectly calibrated dish put me in mind of the pastas at the hallowed Mosca's, on New Orleans' funky west bank. I didn't even miss the mint that the menu had promised, but which was nowhere in evidence. There was so much I took the excess home; damned if it wasn't even better the next day.

Another night's pasta du jour bore an unusual, lemony saute of zucchini on top; it made me want to return for the pasta with beans, the pasta scarpata with sausage and vegetables, the pasta with tomato sauce and wild mushrooms. Even a not entirely successful dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce and so-called "little cheeseballs" -- actually golf ball-sized lumps of earthbound fried mozzarella -- came with a marinara so sprightly that I'd go back for it in a minute.

Unfortunately, the seafood and meat sections of the menu spelled trouble ... in Sicilian dialect, of course. Scampi stuffat' proved to be too busy for their own good, the butterflied shellfish stuffed with a decent-enough crabmeat mixture and glossed with a faintly winy, light-brown sauce that had been almost imperceptibly tinged with tomato. The effect was too much of too much.

A piece of grilled wahoo (the fish of the evening one night) proved stiff as a board; its Sicilian cimiciurri sauce -- the grandmother of the Argentine version -- was so harshly, bitterly garlicked that its parsley and olive oil faded into oblivion. A tough bistecc' a Trojani, cooked medium instead of the requested rare, sported a ton of garlic and nary a hit of the mint promised as part of its "ancient recipe." At least there was compensation in the form of fine sauteed spinach (with more garlic, naturally) and appealing potatoes roasted with rosemary and red pepper.

Of the restaurant's lobster fra diavolo, which Il Dio di Vin' touts as the best in town, I am afraid I bring no good news. Fished from a cloudy tank in the front of the dining room, this creature was sacrificed in vain: it emerged tough of tail and smothered in an array of overcooked shrimp, clams and mussels that could not be rescued by a sea of spicy tomato sauce. Only the claws emerged unscathed. Again, too much of too much -- and too cooked and too expensive (at $26.95) to boot. I wish I had been advised that it was enough for two people. More to the point, I wish I had been told not to order it at all.

Oh, well. Just when you despair of Il Dio di Vin', the kitchen presents you with something so endearing that it lights that old Chianti-bottle-candle of hope in your heart. A small plate of delicate, deftly pan-fried zucchini in the lightest mantle of crumbs, perhaps. Or a simple side dish of pasta. Or some unexpectedly wonderful broccoli Milanese -- whole tree trunks of the vegetable, rolled in bread crumbs zapped with parmesan, garlic and pepper, the flavors jumping right out at you. There's so much of it you can take some home and eat it as picnic food, like cold fried chicken -- only better.

The reasonably priced house wines at about 13 bucks a carafe could teach a thing or two to 95 percent of the restaurants in Houston. The Frescobaldi Chianti and a mellower Montepulciano are particularly civilized.

So are the desserts. Ricotta cake turns out to be cheesecake of a higher form, delicate and crumbly instead of heavy and slick. Crisp tubes of cannoli filled with ricotta cream and pistachios are so fresh and obviously handmade as to run rings around most of the other local versions; until I tried these, I had despaired of finding cannoli worth eating. There's a sweetly innocent cassata, too, its spongy angel cake filled with a suggestion of ricotta and topped with smooth chocolate cream.

The bottom line? Stick to pastas, vegetables, house wines and desserts and you're liable to do fine here; people with a perverse appreciation for grotto effects will feel deliciously at home. Garlic-heads will finally have to put their money where their mouth is. Mozzarella in carroza fans will find a new benchmark. Beyond that, you takes your chances; it's as tricky to draw a firm conclusion as it is to find this idiosyncratic spot, which is tucked back on the service road on I-10 just west of the Loop, outlined in red neon, a dim white cave in the night.

Il Dio di Vin', 7625 Katy Freeway, 681-7070.

Il Dio di Vin':
mozzarella in carroza, $5.75;
potatoes with red pepper and rosemary, $3.95;
ricotta cake $3.95.


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