Restaurant Reviews

All Joking Aside

That compact commercial strip of Mid Lane between Westheimer and San Felipe makes me gnash my teeth in frustration. Could it get any shorter, narrower or more packed with traffic? Between the looming stone-faced town houses, cheek-by-jowl office blocks and chichi storefronts, this pocket-size gauntlet feels as densely overpopulated as a medieval London cul-de-sac. No wonder the valet parkers appear to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown from noon to midnight.

I made an assault on the area for lunch recently, headed for Crapitto's Restaurant. (Please, no more jokes about John Crapitto's eponymously named cafe: Let's leave that to Jay Leno, who has tweaked him twice already on national television.) By the time I'd finally jammed my car into what looked like the last parking spot in three square miles, I was ready to rip someone's head off, I didn't much care whose. What a relief it was, then, to step across the threshold of a 75-year-old former farmhouse. Light streams through the leaded glass of the entryway; the hardwood floor is polished to a fare-thee-well but still creaks homely underfoot. Strangely, there's the distinct scent of fresh Sheetrock in the air, mingling with the good smells of garlic and olive oil; credit that to the renovations following the fire Valentine's night that closed Crapitto's from February to November of last year.

At first glance, the restaurant looks like a low-ceilinged warren of small rooms and hallways, which threatened to further shred my already frayed nerves; once inside, though, I realized that the rooms open appealingly one into another, allowing kaleidoscopic angled views of the cheerful bar patrons, well-dressed diners and bustling white-shirted staffers. Small-paned windows line the perimeter overlooking the pretty patio outside, a green-painted wooden deck shaded by gnarled live oaks and red-and-white umbrellas. Even the central smoking section, which I feared might be a grimly walled detention area, is separated from the main dining area only by window glass and wooden slatted blinds, a politely effective air shield, but pleasantly nonclaustrophobic. Deep-toned walls of hunter green and burgundy, half-paneled in dark wood throughout the house, lend a sense of clubby calm that I found soothing.

Since purchasing the decades-old operation, which used to be Romero's, back in 1997, Crapitto has continuously upgraded the bill of fare, introducing new dishes and tweaking the old ones. While Romero's catered to the easily pleased kissy-face crowd, Crapitto's is now earning the admiration of diners undistracted by love. For me, no matter how romantic the room, there are only two categories of Italian food: fantastic and fuhgeddaboutit, with the latter sadly outnumbering the former by far. Thank goodness my recent meals at Crapitto's have been the most memorable yet.

The short list of appetizers is still limited to the tried-and-true, I found, the best being two hulking portobello mushroom caps ($6.95) with a meaty wingspan of about six inches, grilled and doused in a darkly flavorful balsamic vinaigrette. The crab cakes ($9.95) are impressive, too, though they bear an unnerving resemblance to a pair of plump browned hamburger patties. Loaded with lump crabmeat and speckled with bits of red pepper, dressed in a light lemon-wine sauce, these two big boys are almost a meal in themselves. An order of fried calamari and shrimp ($9.95) is even more generous, fully enough for four. The calamari are so tender and lightly breaded as to put hackneyed competitors to shame, and the marinara dipping sauce is perfectly seasoned, neither too spicy nor too bland (though the proportion's wrong: You'll want twice as much as is served).

The pick of the dinner menu is Crapitto's "signature" veal chop ($24.95), an astonishing one-pound, two-inch-thick cut suitable for Henry VIII. It had been so long since I'd been asked how I wanted my veal cooked -- what, other than grayish-white all the way through? -- that I was nonplussed when our waitress put the question. Rare I asked for, and rare I got, another pleasant surprise, although at that size and scale I probably should have throttled up to medium rare to make the cutting easier. But the chop was gorgeously grilled and tender atop a rich, creamy sauce of surprisingly mild Roquefort and butter. The sides were as impressive as the entrée, a heap of tender, perfectly cooked stalks of asparagus shaggy with freshly grated strands of Parmesan, and a generous portion of garlicky mashed potatoes. My only regret was how many slices of the chewy country-style bread slathered with house pesto I'd wolfed down before the entrée arrived.

While no match in bulk, Jennette's fillet ($28.95) ran a close second in plate appeal. This ten-ounce Angus fillet was as thick and as rare and as meltingly tender as the veal chop, and crowned with primo-quality lump crabmeat to boot. Normally I'm not fond of mixing my surf and my turf, but this combination worked well, thanks in part to the uncommonly light garlic-butter sauce. There's also a purist's alternative in the straight Angus fillet ($25.95), sans crabmeat and with a Cabernet wine sauce, which I may try next time.

Several more dishes are named for members of the Crapitto clan, such as the shrimp Nellie ($18.95) and a recent off-the-menu special, the chicken Angela ($16.95). I hate to speak slightingly of a dish named for any man's sainted grandmother, but I was disappointed in Nellie's gently sautéed egg-dipped shrimp in garlic-cream sauce, served atop a mass of fettuccine. It was too politely underseasoned, too monochromatic for my taste. But what do I know? Our waitress claimed that it's the kitchen's most popular creation, and judging from the number of times I spotted it at nearby tables, she didn't exaggerate. Little chicken Angela, though, was spunkier than ol' Nellie, a chicken half-breast piled high with dark green sautéed spinach, curly crawfish tails and fresh red tomatoes, sweetly sauced with sherry. I'm not sure Angela's seasoning is entirely sorted out -- she needs a dash of something sterner to stand up to that sherry -- and the breast meat, pounded thin, seemed a tad tough, but once the minor kinks are smoothed, I think this new recipe will be a keeper for the regular menu.

My favorite of Crapitto's four desserts was the towering wedge of Italian cream cake ($6.50), which I loved mostly for its nutty, multilayered resemblance, texturewise, to carrot cake. That thick, butter-creamy icing doesn't hurt, either, seriously rich but not too sweet. I liked the lemony New York-style cheesecake ($6.50), too, but the Kahlóa cheesecake ($6.50), well, it's another tragic case of missing personality. If you want to kid yourself that you're finishing lightly, try the tricolored spumoni ice cream ($5.50) instead, fetchingly served in an oversize martini glass to best show its pretty tints. Even the cappuccinos ($3.50) each come with a chocolate biscotti perched on the saucer, a nice touch of lagniappe but a sneaky way to undermine your diet resolve. Oh, what the heck, Crapitto's just isn't a place to diet. It's an urban retreat, a place to forget the traffic and feel at home, to indulge and even overindulge.