Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Bobby Matos of Ciao Bello and His Crave-Worthy Italian Classics

Bobby Matos Ciao Bello 5161 San Felipe 713-960-0333

This is the third and final part of a three-part chef chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, Chef Bobby Matos of Ciao Bello chatted with us about the foods his Italian grandmother used to make, the merits of culinary school (you make more money), the chefs who mentored him and how he's been concentrating on Italian classics since he took over the Ciao Bello kitchen. Today we will taste some of his food.

It's fitting that we started with the pappardelle bolognese. Like plain ol' meatballs and spaghetti, it's one of those definitive Italian classics. Make a good one, and you'll have devoted fans for life. Ciao Bello's version is not fancy, but it doesn't need to be.

Presented simply in a wide, flat pasta bowl generously topped with this glistening red meat sauce, the scintillating aroma coming from the bowl was the first thing I noticed. I breathed in the smell with a delighted "ahh" of appreciation, before twirling a spoonful of the delicate pasta and taking a bite. The consistency of the meat-laden sauce was perfection -- not too thick, not too runny, adding a burst of flavor and texture to the pappardelle. I'm not Italian, but having sampled food from the old country, I can tell you, this is exactly the type of stuff you'd find at a modest mom-and-pop-run osteria somewhere in Italy.

"The bolognese here is a correct bolognese. It's hard to describe. It's so different than what you'd expect. It's luscious, it's rich, buttery, it's packed with flavor and just the right amount of tomato. It's not this big tomato-y sauce that you find at a lot of Italian restaurants," Matos told me.

It was all that and more, and in fact, it's one of the best pasta versions of this dish I've ever tried. I tried to pump Matos for secrets to the recipe, but the most I could get him to reveal is that he makes the bolognese himself every day, and they only use tomatoes imported from Italy. "The first three pots I made, Mr. Vallone made me throw out. You learn to make a good one pretty quickly after that, and no one else makes this sauce but me."

Next up was an equally arresting fish dish, the Gulf Flounder Amatriciana. Another simple but beautiful dish, the founder had been prepared so it was slightly crisp on the outside, and was served with the tail split down the middle with a mound of plump red sauce oozing out the middle. Like the bolognese, the sauce was packed with flavor, the deep flavors of the bacon-like guanciale with basil complementing the mild fish well.

Next we had the porchetta, a special menu item and an example of Matos's application of modern technique to an old classic. Melt-in-your-mouth pork belly glazed with saba, braised so tender it practically melted off the fork, was fantastic. People who love braised short ribs or braised beef cheeks would be fans of this porchetta.

For dessert, we had their classic carrot cake. "That's my favorite dessert here," smiled General Manager David Siegman as he walked by. And just looking at it, I could see why. The slice of cake was this glistening, mouthwatering hunk of a beauty. Moist and delicious, with the correct complement of cream cheese frosting, every bite was just a joy. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is hands down the best carrot cake I've ever tasted.

Ciao Bello had not been on my radar for some time, but it's jumped to the front of my list of go-to restaurants. I've sent friends in without me, who have come back raving about the quality of the food, including my vaunted pappardelle bolognese, and at the end of the day, that's what you want: a place that you can go for a great meal every time. In Part 2 of this week's chat, Matos told me that his main job was to create consistency, and kudos to him, he's definitely done that.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham