When I was 13, a church youth group minister tried to explain the risks and rewards of dating through the lens of pizza. “Pizza Love,” he told us, was a transactional sort of love, a passing affection based on instant gratification. The scratching of an itch. Whether or not you agree with the moralism inherent in this metaphor, it’s hard to deny that pizza, at its best, is -capable of delivering some of the best bang-for-the-buck culinary thrills out there.
Right now, my personal pizza itch is best scratched by the Bianca pie at Cane Rosso, the Dallas import that has quickly become Houston’s newest pizza heartthrob, photo-posters of its lovely pies gracing the ceilings and lockers of pubescent pizzaphiles across the city. I’m not sure if there’s more to the relationship than the momentary rush of cheese- and pepper-infused dopamine that floods my senses at the mere thought of another bite, but, man, the few, flushed moments required to polish one off sure do get me worked up.
The Bianca is basically cacio e pepe in pizza form, all buttery cheese and black pepper bite. It has a lovely level of seasoning, just enough to be almost over-salted, but never quite stepping over the line. That line is a great place to live. On top of the sharp and rich cheese and powerful bloom of black pepper, a judicious addition of just enough basil adds a floral compatriot to the prickly potpourri of the pepper. It’s simply exciting stuff.
It should come as no surprise that many of the best bites at Cane Rosso are similarly focused, artfully austere in their delivery of maximalist minimalism. When they’re at their best, the pies here find a sweet spot and home in on it, very much in keeping with their Vera Pizza Napoletana designation.
To a one, the pies I tried at the original Houston location showed off their Neapolitan-style crust to great effect. A brisk turn through a hot oven leaves the mid-rise crowns blistered and pocked, in a delightfully speckled array of shades offering maximum flavor and texture contrast. There’s a great tug and chew to the crust, underneath the slight snap and crackle of its flame-kissed outer edges, and a well-developed and nuanced flavor with a surprising — and surprisingly effective — salty bite.
This is Neapolian-style pie, though, so don’t expect firm and foldable slices. Some pizza purists balk at the thought of knife-and-forking their way through a pie, but it’s often the best way to go here. Pies don’t quite end up soupy in the middle, but some softening should be expected. That’s certainly true of the Margherita, whose qualities encourage speed.
It’s a bit of a race against the clock. While the fresh and juicy tomato sauce is bright and sprightly, it’s also working against that lovely dappled crust, its appealing flow threatening to undermine its own foundation. The housemade mozzarella starts out milky-sweet, gentle and creamy. It stretches just so, its supple nature contrasting nicely with the tug and chew of the crust. As it cools, though, it gets a bit too tacky. Not that you’d want to take your time, but this one definitely encourages a quick romp.
If you’re feeling just a little bit frisky, the Ella adds just a bit of kink, layering thinly sliced and spicy soppressata on top of a Margherita base. Over at the Montrose branch of Cane Rosso, a lunchtime Ella wasn’t quite up to the standard set at the Houston mothership (this location is newer, and may still be working out its kinks). Its sauce was a bit watery and wan, running off in pale rivulets. The knife and fork weren’t so much a recommendation here as a requirement. The crust paled a bit, too, its crown not as lofty, its hole structure not as pronounced. It also lacked the flavor development and salty punch of its Heights-area brethren. It came more or less evenly browned around the crown, rather than showing off a calico expanse of shades pocked by large, char-burst bubbles. Fortunately, the soppressata helps make up for the timid seasoning with a salty, fatty, spicy punch. It also supplements the weaker textures, its blistering run through the oven leaving it crisp-edged with a meaty chew. Tuned to the frequencies more typical of pies out of the Heights oven, I’m sure the Ella would earn a more full-throated response.
Spice is a hallmark of many of the pies at Cane Rosso. It shows up in the guise of fruity-hot Calabrian chiles, piquant sambal, earthy roasted jalapeño pesto or sweet and spicy bacon marmalade. Sometimes this works out well, a fun and very Texan twist that questions the Neapolitan notion of simplicity; at other times, it reinforces that elemental truth.
Take the Che Cazzo, a sort of “dealer’s choice” pie whose only consistent note is a dedication to heat. One night, this delivered a rather non-traditional pie (I’m told that’s typical of this wildcard option) that managed to be among the best we sampled across several visits. It came far more loaded than the Neapolitan creed typically demands — much more so than most of the best pies at Cane Rosso, in fact — its laundry list of ingredients sounding overwhelming but offering a surprisingly alluring balance.
Hot soppressata, Calabrian chiles, sausage, mushrooms and sambal sounds perilously close to gimmick territory, at first blush. This pizza is no gimmick, tasting delightfully like the pickled jalapeño and pepperoni pizza my wife adores, all grown up and refined. The trio of spicy elements creates an effect that is certainly hot, but restrained, and explosively flavorful. The pie leads off with a fruity spice from the chiles, while a gentle rubble of sausage lends texture and a lovely prickle of fennel. The mushrooms are slick and densely meaty, a firm counterpoint to the higher notes on display. A bit of gently fermented funk from the soppressata kicks in over the top, while the sambal brings a renewed heat buoyed by a gentle jolt of acid. It comes at you from all directions, like a four-handed hot-oil massage.
The heat doesn’t play as well on the Delia, its fiery passion blunted by the sweet edge of “spicy bacon marmalade.” If the pie put a bit more faith in its fire, dialing back the sugar and allowing heat and smoke to assert themselves more in this already assertive condiment, the effect would be charming rather than disconcerting. As is, the whole pie lists perilously sweet.
After such an incongruous note, the Marinara pie is a nice shift back to basics. It is both simple and lovely, allowing a few essential elements to shine. Gently sweet, lushly acidic tomato edges up against dusky oregano and a fragrant hit of basil. With no cheese to distract, it’s a sharp-edged reflection on fundamentals, the “toppings” a perfect foil for the chewy, scorched crust, highlighting texture and the kiss of fire. The only thing that challenges its simple pleasure is the odd rawness of the sheaf of wafer-thin garlic slices tossed on top. Pull those out, or maybe confit them for a rich and subtle embrace instead of brash pawing, and this pie would be nearly perfect.
It’s not all pizza at Cane Rosso, though the pies are certainly your best bet. If you want something to start, the burrata can be downright delightful. The delicate cheese strains the bounds of its skin, oozing creamily once cut. Olive oil and salt dress it well, seasoning every bite with richness and spark. A pair of sliced tomato cherubs — roasted just so — add a hit of smoke and acid and sweetness, all of that rushing headlong against the rich, sweet milkiness of the cheese. It comes sided with a few fingers of bread, offering an exacting ratio of chew, crust, char and yeasty bloom. Depending on the night, your bowl may come with fried kale (full of roasty flavor with a brilliant shatter, but often bearing a bit too much lingering oil) or roasted bitter greens. The former is fine, the latter a bit of a clash. Ask the kitchen to leave it off, or maybe on the side. It’s not bad; it just has no place alongside that gently dreamy cheese.
The drinks at Cane Rosso can be surprisingly pleasant, or deeply disappointing. The cocktails are the former, while the wines (reds, at least) are decidedly the latter. There, it’s largely a matter of temperature. My glass of Aglianico offered decent structure and a long finish, but hidden under a room-temp flabbiness that seems to be a constant here. The cocktails are a different story, taking standard crowd-pleasers like the Bellini and the Lemon Drop and slipping them into something a little more comfortable for a more mature cocktail crowd. They emerge drier and more nuanced than what you’re likely expecting, offering fruit and spice, brightness and punch, often perked up by heady herbal garnishes.
Perhaps that youth minister was right, and the glow I feel when I catch sight of the flicker and dance of Cane Rosso’s imposing oven is just the flush of infatuation. Or perhaps, when it comes to pizza, those momentary thrills are what it’s all about. By that metric, and with a bit of judicious ordering, Cane Rosso offers not just the thrum and buzz of a pizza hookup, but real and lasting “pizza love.” Frankly, I’m good with either.
1835 North Shepherd, 713-868-0071, canerosso.com/theheights. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Federico Bellini $8
Dew Drop $9?
Margherita pizza $13
Delia pizza $16
Bianca pizza $15
Marinara pizza $11
Che Cazzo pizza $16
Ella pizza $14