Where are sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic and basil on the "margherita" side and diced tomatoes, garlic, red onion, lemon and basil on the "cristini" side of our 12-inch pizza. I go back and forth eating a slice from one side and then the other, trying to decide which I like better. It's a tie.
The pizza crust at Palazzo's Italian Café doesn't have the yeasty air pockets or crusty edges of a truly great crust, but it's pleasantly thin and crispy. Some Italian restaurants serve their pizzas on a little metal stand; here at Palazzo's the pan is set on top of an empty Italian tomato can. It's a cute touch.
Sitting outside on the patio on a cool spring evening, eating pizza and drinking a bottle of good but inexpensive red wine -- this is Palazzo's at its best. The waiter artfully guided us away from the Chiantis and Merlots and toward the best red wine deal on the menu: Camelot Cabernet is a medium-bodied California Cab with a lot more intensity and varietal character than you'd expect from a wine with a $24 price tag. We are contentedly sipping our plonk and watching the traffic on Westheimer whiz by. But now our affable and informative waiter seems reluctant to spoil our evening by serving the rest of our dinner.
"The kitchen hasn't started the entrées yet," he says. "It's not too late to cancel them." I puzzle over this for a minute. Is he being thoughtful, allowing us to change our minds in case the pizza has filled us up? Or is he trying to tell us something?
The first time I visited Palazzo's was in early December. I had an excellent veal piccata, tender, paper-thin sheets of veal swimming in white wine and lemon butter with artichoke hearts and capers on top. A pile of capellini tossed with garlic and olive oil was served on the side. I liked my lunch so much, I looked forward to coming back sometime when the weather was nice and I could hang out on the patio. And now here I am. If I had just stuck with the pizza and red wine, I might still be smitten with this low-key Italian cafe.
But the chicken Marsala extinguishes my ardor. The chicken breast is cooked just right, and the sautéed mushrooms and Marsala sauce are perfectly respectable. It's the spaghetti marinara served on the side that ruins the whole dish. A great volume of water seeps out of the spaghetti and slowly swamps the whole plate. The chicken is sitting in the water getting soggy. The water dilutes the Marsala sauce and washes all the tasty glaze off the mushrooms.
Short of tipping the plate and pouring the water off onto the patio, I can't think of any way to save my dinner.
Marinara sauce is pretty hard to mess up. Generally it's made by cooking canned Italian tomatoes in garlic-flavored olive oil with some basil and seasonings. Unlike a regular red sauce, no tomato paste or thickeners are added. So what could cause a marinara sauce to develop such embarrassing leakage?
When I got home, I called a couple of Italian cooks and asked their opinion. They offered three possibilities: First, the marinara might not have cooked down enough. Second, the pasta might have been poorly drained. Last, while a regular red sauce made with thickeners freezes fairly well, marinara doesn't. The water in the tomatoes forms ice crystals that can't be reabsorbed by the sauce.
Palazzo's Italian Café is a little too tastefully decorated. The Tuscan color scheme and fine art gives the place a fine-dining feeling, while in fact, the menu is delightfully downscale. Lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti and meatballs are among the entrées here. If you ask me, the place would be more appropriately turned out if the handsome wooden tables were covered with red-checkered tablecloths.
The restaurant specializes in what it calls "American-Italian" food. And as much as I enjoy risotto, artful antipasti and the sophisticated flavors of Northern Italian cuisine, this is the kind of Italian food I remember from my childhood. My family's not Italian, but my mother made a mean red sauce, and she never skimped on the garlic or red pepper. In high school, I hung out in New England pizzerias. After-school snacks and late-night pig-outs were cheese slices, meatball grinders or sausage and peppers.
So knowing where to find a good red-checkered tablecloth Italian restaurant is just as important to me as knowing where to go for upscale Italian cuisine. After all, I eat the former with much more frequency than the latter. Palazzo's looked like my new favorite place for spaghetti and meatballs -- until I made the mistake of actually trying the spaghetti and meatballs.
It's lunchtime on a cold, rainy day, and despite the inclement weather, my companion shows up for lunch wearing pink flip-flops. I am a little surprised, but as we sit considering the menu, a trio of women enters, and two of them are wearing rubber sandals as well.
"See, flip-flops are de rigueur here!" she chuckles. Well, it's certainly a comforting measure of Palazzo's relaxed dress code, anyway. There is a television on above the bar this afternoon, too. If the elegant decorating scheme seems a bit too formal for the restaurant, the crowd and the TV bring the atmosphere back down to earth. A basket of excellent hot bread, actually pizza crust cut into crunchy ribbons, is irresistible. And our appetizer of fennel-scented sausage slices with velvety roasted peppers reinforces the home-cooked Italian vibe.
Then we get our entrées. My spaghetti is cooked past al dente, but it tastes fine. Still, the tomato sauce is creating a puddle on the plate and the big meatballs have an insipid, washed-out flavor. My companion gets lasagna, which is served with a topping of marinara sauce. Her dish is also outlined by a ring of clear liquid.
"It tastes watery," she says with a grimace, "like it's been frozen." She says she's quite familiar with the taste of frozen lasagna because she heats up portions of Sam's frozen lasagna in the microwave at her warehouse to feed her employees on busy days. And although it tastes okay on a hectic day at the warehouse, it's not quite what you'd expect from an Italian restaurant.
I have no idea what's going on in the kitchen at Palazzo's or what's causing their marinara sauce to wet itself in public. But until they get the problem straightened out, I'd recommend you avoid the dishes made with the watery red sauce. Unfortunately, that includes the lasagna, the spaghetti and meatballs, and much of the rest of the menu.
Spaghetti and meatball cookery seems easy. You aren't shooting for the moon; all you're aiming for is something that tastes homemade. But the ease of preparation has led many a kitchen to lapse into mediocrity. And the margin for error is deceptively slim. Take one shortcut too many, or scrimp on just one ingredient, and you end up with the worst culinary disaster of them all: simple food, badly cooked.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.