Dinner at Fratelli's

When I lived in Boston, the proximity of the North End to my apartment meant I ate Italian food fairly regularly. I gnoshed on arancini during street festivals, savored truffled risotto at some high-end joints, and devoured slices loaded with sausage and peppers at Pizzeria Regina. But finding decent Italian cuisine has been a bit trickier in Houston. Granted, I've been distracted by my new-found love of Tex-Mex, and have not yet visited some of the city's more famous Italian establishments. And when I have, the food has unfortunately been often underwhelming.

Not so much at Fratelli's, thank God (who, according to my Grandma, is half-Italian, half-Irish). I got over the fact that it's located outside the loop (just a wee bit) and in a strip mall soon after I passed through the door. The white and salmon-colored table linens and sunshine walls evoked a certain relaxed classiness, while the colorful local artwork made the restaurant elegant but fun.

I started off with an order of the calamari fritti. A common feature at many Italian restaurants, calamari is nevertheless tricky to master: I've found it's often served soggy and encased in a flavorless batter. At Fratelli's, the coating was crisp and peppery, the squid supple, and the accompanying marinara sauce just a bit spicy.

I was tempted to eat every last piece of calamari, but I was determined to save the majority of my stomach space for the pasta, particularly the gnocchi. Chef and owner Teresa Wittman makes all of Fratelli's pasta from scratch and, as a hearty eater, I was tickled pink that she cuts her gnocchi a little larger than most chefs. The dumplings were soft, just a bit chewy in the center (not tough like freeze-dried supermarket crap), and bathed in a fragrant porcini cream sauce flecked with thyme. My friend generously let me finish off the gnocchi, which were pleasantly lightly despite the rich dressing and dense starch content. In return, I promised her the lion's share of the tagliatelle con ragu bolognese.

Chef Teresa makes the sauce for the tagliatelle the old-fashioned way, by which I mean simmering, stirring, more simmering, more stirring...for eight hours. Great pasta sauce can certainly be made in far less time with some fresh, simple ingredients, but the drawn-out process has its benefits. This ragu had a more complex meat flavor than others I've tried, no doubt resulting from multiple sources (veal, beef) and subtle nutty and acidic notes from the red wine and onions. We tried to make the dish last eight minutes and failed.

A nice complement to the tagliatelle was the risotto ai frutti di mare: light arborio rice bloated with seafood stock and studded with clams, squid and shrimp. A dusting of parmesan cheese enhanced the overall creaminess and brought out some of the briny flavors of the fish.

Although I had been saving room for dessert, I forgot, in my gastric capacity calculations, to leave space for the costolette di maile ripieni, large, rather intimidating pork chop bursting with gorgonzola and spinach and topped with a marsala sauce. It's a crying shame I could only muster one or two bites of the succulent white meat and just a forkful of the decadent filling, because they both were wonderful.

The pork chop put me over the edge. I slipped into somnolence while my friend (who showed more restraint) enjoyed her tiramisu.

After this meal, I know this much is true:

1) I'm a sassy (not, idiotic, thank you) Italian girl, but I could never be a mafiosa. No way would I have the energy to whack people after eating such fare. I'd rather take a nap.

2) It's worth leaving the loop for Fratelli's. My eight minutes of extra driving garnered me a terrific, relaxing meal and reminded me of my love of gnocchi.

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Joanna O'Leary