Restaurant Reviews

Cucina Italiana con Comfort

Take a peek inside the new home of chef Aldo el Sharif at Aldo's Cucina Italiana.

In the late 1990s, chef Aldo el Sharif was serving meals to rival those at Tony's from a two-story house on lower Westheimer that's now known as Feast. Before it was home to a nose-to-tail temple, the house hosted Aldo's Dining Con Amore, where the gregarious el Sharif turned out dishes like albacore tuna with crabmeat and Frangelico for $30 and luscious veal medallions for $40.

These days, you'll find el Sharif at Aldo's Cucina Italiana, housed in the parking lot of a Comfort Suites in Shenandoah, just north of The Woodlands. It's a world away from Montrose and those notoriously high prices of the '90s — prices which often weren't even mentioned after el Sharif did away with the menu at Con Amore entirely — but it's fitting somehow, as el Sharif relaxes into that so-called vale of years.

His famous garrulousness has waned a bit; he's not usually found in the handsome dining room until most of the patrons have left and it's calmed down. And his menu at Aldo's Cucina Italiana doesn't contain all of the same brash ingredients el Sharif once featured nearly two decades ago — kangaroo, boar and elk among them — but it does still host a few wild choices, like wide pocket squares of silky fazzoletti with braised wild boar or oxtail-stuffed francobolli. And as with all of el Sharif's past ventures, the pasta is still handmade — every last wonderful piece of it, from the half-moon mezzaluna to the goat cheese-stuffed tortellini in sage butter.

When reviewing el Sharif's wide-ranging career throughout Houston, it suddenly doesn't seem so odd that he's ended up here in the hinterlands of The Woodlands; after all, the Egyptian-born and Italian-bred el Sharif first made a name for himself at Buttarazzi's in the northwest suburbs of Champions Village more than 20 years ago.

There are a few other bits of nostalgia here and there at Aldo's Cucina Italiana for fans of el Sharif, from small to large: from apricot-studded butter on the table along with a bread basket at dinner, to serious service that imparts a white tablecloth feel even up here in far north Houston.

That service is a vital part of what makes the new Aldo's so special. On one evening, I visited with my cousin, who'd come to town on business and unexpectedly found herself at the very same Comfort Suites behind Aldo's on I-45 North. The night before, she'd bought a bottle of wine to enjoy at the hotel but couldn't find a corkscrew, and walked over to Aldo's hoping the restaurant would be amenable to her admittedly weird request: "Could you open this bottle of wine for me?"

A waiter in a long apron opened her bottle with one swift motion and a smile. By chance or fate, we ended up sitting in that same waiter's section the following evening. And before we'd even examined the wine list, the waiter had brought my cousin a corkscrew from the kitchen and presented it to her: "So you'll never have to travel without wine again," he said with a laugh.

A few minutes later, the sommelier came to our table to inform me that the bottle of white I'd ordered was out of stock, apologizing profusely. He carried with him two additional bottles — one more mainstream, the other slightly funkier — for us to choose from (I chose the funky one, naturally), both of which cost less than our original selection. And the waiter comped our dessert that evening for the inconvenience. It wasn't at all necessary given the excellent service overall, but I couldn't help coming away from the meal thinking I'd just had some of the best service that The Woodlands or north Houston has to offer. And smart, charming service is so hard to find these days, it's all the more worth applauding.

The dining room, too, is intimate and charming — all white tablecloths and plush carpet, heavy drapes and fireplaces. The latter is always unnecessary in Houston, but never fails to impart a sense of coziness to a space. One end of the double-sided fireplace faces the spacious dining room, but the other faces a mahogany-accented bar area that's just as big and seems even larger thanks to its vaulted ceilings. On Saturday nights when the restaurant is packed, the spillover hangs out here and listens to piano players while they down glasses of Super Tuscan. It's at once casual and upscale on this side of the house, an unexpected wine bar in an equally unexpected location.

And although el Sharif has tempered the prices on his plates quite a bit, the food is still as good as it ever was. That night at dinner, we reveled in a sampler plate that allowed us to taste three of el Sharif's pastas at once — the tortelloni with goat cheese, the ravioli with oxtail and a nightly special of crab-stuffed ravioli — and then went back for more, ordering two more pasta dishes for our entrées. The pasta at Aldo's is that hard to resist.

The fazzoletti I ordered with braised wild boar was good, to be sure, although the boar itself wanted for some salt. But those wide strips of "handkerchief pasta" were the real attraction anyway, the dough rich with eggs and so tender that each square seemed to melt under my fork. Surprisingly, though, the fazzoletti wasn't the hit of the night, nor was an arugula salad that overflowed with plump roasted beets in two vivid colors.

Instead, it was my cousin's simple meal of tagliatelle alfredo that made me pause for a good few minutes of contemplation. The sauce tasted of pure butter — I imagined a whole brick of golden, salty Plugra sinking beneath a pool of cream in a saucepan somewhere — and was nearly too good to stop eating. A childlike dish such as this is transformed here into something greater, even though it would be just as easy for el Sharif to turn out a boring, chalky mess for those impudent enough to order tagliatelle alfredo from a big, bold menu that includes dishes such as big-eye tuna with a blood orange reduction or cioppino in a spicy marinara.

Aldo's Cucina Italiana recently started offering lunch, and it's an ideal time to experience the menu in a more compact and affordable format. By day, the staid dining room takes on a formal feel, making it more suited to business meetings than to casual lunching. But it can still be comfortable, especially with a glass of wine in hand.

It was over a recent lunch, in fact, that three friends and I made ourselves at home by passing our dishes around one after another in the kind of family-style eating I wish was more encouraged here. We passed a citrus-laced seafood salad that was heavy with mussels, clams, squid, shrimp and huge, fluffy scallops (although also too heavy on the olive oil dressing) and bowls of soup with similar sunflower hues but totally different flavors: One, my favorite, a vanilla bean-flecked sweet corn soup topped with fat curves of crabmeat, the other a butternut squash soup kept summery with bright-tasting almond cream.

We dove into each other's plates of pasta, forks reaching into twirls of simple pappardelle with a robust, savory Bolognese sauce and fine layers of lasagna al forno in a sweet marinara that burst with the flavor of San Marzano tomatoes. I even let one friend order those oxtail ravioli again just so I could have another taste of the soft shreds of meat inside, something I rarely allow for on these types of visits.

I ventured outside the pasta menu for some of el Sharif's veal milanese, an exceptionally straightforward dish that can induce either boredom or sweet nostalgia, depending on the chef. In el Sharif's capable hands, the dish was a tribute to its kind: Fat bread crumbs with the crunch of Panko enveloped the thin cutlets, milky pure, and soaked up the mushroom-laden lemon-butter sauce without losing their crisp bite. A disappointing side of boiled green beans and a frankly terrible tiramisu were the only misses of the meal. (Now, roast those green beans with some shallots and soak your ladyfingers in coffee before sandwiching them into a tiramisu, and we'll be talking about a really exceptional meal.)

Though el Sharif's veal is less expensive now than it once was at Con Amore in the 1990s, you'll probably make that difference up with the cost of gas to get up to Shenandoah. It's worth it, though, if only for a visit to see for yourself what one of Houston's most memorable chefs is up to these days. And for those who live out here, it's a gem they might try to keep — almost — all to themselves.

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Katharine Shilcutt