The medieval question used to be, How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The question for Houstonians in the year 2000 might be, How many Italian restaurants does one downtown need?
I mean, within walking distance of the Theater District alone there are two terrific Italian restaurants, Buca di Bacco and Osteria D'Aldo, and one good one, Mia Bella. Then there are Birraporetti's and Mingalone; there are even -- God help us -- Sambuca and the Spaghetti Warehouse. I bow to no one in my love of Italian food, but come on, enough is enough. (Of course, if a real brick-oven pizza place were to open up, or a place where I could get a good veal-and-pepper sandwich, I wouldn't complain.)
Now I wouldn't be complaining so vociferously if Brothers Petronella were a great restaurant, one that stood head and shoulders above the crowd. Unfortunately, it's not a great restaurant. Don't get me wrong -- most of the food is good, maybe even pleasant, but given the competition, good and pleasant are not enough. You can walk just a couple of blocks and do much better.
Let me note, in the interest of accuracy, that the menu is not entirely Italian. It seems to have raided other cultures. There's a blackened catfish here, a plate of Maryland crab cakes there. There's even, in an odd nod toward the Far East, an appetizer of Black and Blue Ahi ($9). The name is derived from the cooking process: The tuna is spiced and seared on the outside (black) and still raw (or blue, if you will) on the inside. This version is served with an artistic drizzle of soy and mustard with a few pepper slices, which add a sweet, crunchy accent. It seemed to be an excellent piece of tuna, but what with the heavy-handed spicing and sauce, it was a bit hard to tell (though it was tasty nonetheless). Strangely enough, when you order the ahi, the only Asian dish on the menu, you are presented with chopsticks. I'm not sure if this idea is fun, silly, pretentious or a combination of all three.
An even odder appetizer is the clams casino (the menu says $6 for six). Happily imagining six decently sized clams broiled with bacon and a topped with a goodly amount of seasoned bread crumbs, I was sorely disappointed with what arrived at our table: There, on a bed of salt, rested nine tiny clamshells, each about the size of my thumbnail. Inside each rested a teeny sweet clam about the size of a chocolate chip. On top of that, a wee piece of salty pancetta. And on top of that, by my reckoning, about four bread crumbs. The clams were okay, although the pancetta dominated the taste, but if you had put it all together, it wouldn't have added up to much more than a tablespoon of food. I can think of better ways to spend six bucks.
I did, though, thoroughly enjoy the portobello mushroom ($7). Marinated and grilled, it had a robust flavor that was accented perfectly by the roasted garlic accompaniment. The soup of the day -- in my case, cream of crab ($3.50) -- was good as well, rich and creamy, with generous chunks of crabmeat.
The Maui Waui salad is described on the menu as "the salad of salads," but, believe me, there's nothing remotely "wowie" about it, unless you consider the shock of the price. A bed of greens is tossed with a bland vinaigrette, then topped with a few slices of avocado and even fewer slices of Maui sweet onions (six, by my count), all resting on a large dinner plate. All for $9! Tasteless, on more than one level.
As for the entrées, the snapper Petronella ($21) was a nice piece of fish, simply seasoned, sautéed and topped with lump crabmeat. Perfectly acceptable, but I wouldn't drive out of my way to order it. Yet compared to the grilled ahi ($16), the snapper was four-star cuisine: Only one of the four ahi pieces wasn't overcooked, and the mango salsa helped only a little to alleviate the bland dryness.
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You would do much better to stick with the pastas. I enjoyed the capellini Dominick ($12), a huge bowl of angel-hair pasta tossed with a light, flavorful tomato sauce, eggplant and capers, garnished with a dollop of ricotta cheese. I also enjoyed the Ravioli a la Frankie B. ($14), a dish whose name perhaps is a nod to Frank Petronella Jr., the non-cooking sibling of the brothers Petronella (Charles is the culinary one). Whatever the source of the name, the ravioli were stuffed with four cheeses and rested in a rich tomato cream sauce. Light? No. Delicious? Yes.
The desserts, too, were good, if predictable: tiramisu, chocolate cake, chocolate cheesecake and ice cream served in an almond crisp (like a bowl made of thin brittle, the crisp is hard and dangerous to bridgework). Desserts are five bucks a pop, and they're all fine, if nothing that will cause you to roll your eyes back in your head, pound the table and exclaim, "God, that's good."
So does downtown really need another so-so Italian restaurant? My answer would be no. (The crowds that have already discovered the restaurant may disagree.) A good French bistro? Yes. A great Chinese restaurant? Show me the way. Even an Armenian restaurant for a change of pace would be nice. But please, no more Italian. Stop now. Fine.
Brothers Petronella, 1000 Prairie, (713)223-0119.