DEFCON Dining: Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

A couple of weeks ago, I walked you guys through a DEFCON 3 dining event. Fortunately, there are a whole lot of restaurants that fit the DEFCON 3 specs, and many of them are pretty good. Even more fortunately (for me, at least), DEFCON 3 isn't an everyday occurrence. My kids are more a DEFCON 4 bunch, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

DEFCON 4 means that my kids can't be entirely trusted to stay upright in their seats, napkins in their laps and speaking in the moderated tones that kindergarten teachers everywhere refer to as "your inside voice." They'll slide out of their seats and speak a bit more loudly than I'd like in a more intimate or upscale setting. They'll (probably) be willing to use silverware. It's best to find a restaurant with a relaxed environment, spacious seating, and a good level of ambient noise. DEFCON 4 is a perfect time for dining al fresco.

Fortunately, Houston has a lot of options for this. Last week, I "discovered" a new favorite, perfect for just such occasions. It has a lovely patio, a good wine list, great food, and an incredibly inviting atmosphere. With or without kids in tow, I have no doubt it will become a regular stop on our rotation.

I'd hesitated to try out Giacomo's Cibe e Vino for very specific reasons - the lines. While I have no doubt that my wife and I could have overcome the supposedly labyrinthine service style that served as a source of consternation for many of the restaurant's early patrons, the parents out there will understand my hesitation to drag my kids through the line, trying to keep them in it while simultaneously interpreting the ordering system.

Whether or not you see the restaurant's eventual change to table service as a defeat of sorts, I can tell you that I probably still wouldn't have visited had they not made the switch. That would truly have been a shame, because Giacomo's is a gem.

We came in on one of those gorgeous, mid-70s evenings we had last week, just as the sun was starting to consider its retreat. Choosing a table at the back corner of the patio, we were surrounded by bay and rosemary, a gentle breeze washing us in their scent. A quick perusal of the wine blackboard on the way past had my wife settled on a flight of sparkling wines (bubbles make her feel fancy). I picked up a glass of serviceable white of forgotten (and unimportant) provenance, and we began looking through the menu.

As my kids' chatter grew a bit louder, we glanced around to make sure we weren't becoming a nuisance to other diners, equally intent on enjoying the charming patio, and without the company of children. The spacious seating layout rendered our concerns moot. Giacomo's could easily squeeze four or five more tables on its patio. Most restaurants would. Instead, the seating is almost luxuriously sparse, almost like having a private patio for each table. The surprisingly gentle whoosh of passing cars also added just enough background noise to further buffer one group of diners from another.

At this point, the food could have been lackluster, and we would have had a splendid evening, enjoying each other's company, the wine, and the weather. The effects of a nice setting are remarkable in their ability to soften the harsh edges of a mediocre meal. Imagine our delight, then, when our meal turned out to be just as civilized and enticing as our surroundings.

My wife wanted to order one of everything from the array of small plates on the front of the menu. I think we'll employ that technique on our next visit. This time, though, I had my eye fixed on the tortelli de bietola (delightfully light half-moon shaped pasta filled with chard and goat cheese, lightly draped with butter and sage), and my gnocchi-obsessed daughter had to have her fix with a dish of toothsome dumplings coated with what ended up being a slightly clunky mushroom and cream sauce twinged with gorgonzola. To round out our meal, we also selected a few of the small items, a luscious and vibrant ratatouille topped with a fried egg and a dish of (not too) spicy lamb meatballs with lentils being standouts among them.

As we shared plates, the sun slowly settling below the oaks, it occurred to me that this place is an inadvertent kid's restaurant. The small plates offer enough variety and reasonable enough prices to serve as an ad hoc "kid's menu" to please all but the pickiest little palate, the environment is relaxed and convivial, and it serves food that I want to eat along with my kids. For DEFCON dining, it doesn't get much better than that.

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