Restaurant Reviews

Eccentric Italian

My Italian-American colleague Paul Galvani ordered snapper with arugula. We were standing at the front counter of the eccentric little Italian restaurant called Perbacco on Milam. You order and pay for your lunch at the register. But I was confused -- where was this snapper with arugula listed?

Turns out that while I was looking down at the menu, Galvani, who is a regular, was looking up at the big white board behind the counter, where the daily specials were listed. For our other dining companion, he recommended the pasta special, gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce. Since the specials were all taken, I went for tortellini from the regular menu.

After we ordered, we got cafeteria trays with our salads and glasses of ice. You help yourself to slices of crusty Italian bread and plastic containers full of butter. And you pour your own water and iced tea. Then you sit down and wait for your big plastic pager to go off, signaling that your entrée is ready.

The tables are all covered with that universal symbol of cheap Italian food, the red-checkered vinyl tablecloth -- which looks odd in the dining room, with its modern decor of bright blue walls, high ceilings and white pendant lights.

After we got our meals, I quickly determined that both of my companions' daily specials were way better than my indifferent tortellini, which was tossed with asparagus chunks and peas in a bland cream sauce.

The snapper was simply sautéed and served with a drizzle of olive oil and a little vinegar and then completely covered with fresh arugula leaves. Cooked fish over wilted greens is a common enough dish, but putting the greens on top is an interesting variation. It looked silly (you couldn't see any fish), but the pile of greens stayed pleasantly crisp. I wished I could eat more if it, but Galvani is a world-class mangione. I was lucky to get one big bite of the excellent fish salad before he powered it down.

Our other dining companion, a stylish young woman, hesitated midway through her lunch to consider how many calories this large plate of pasta in cheese sauce might represent. The gnocchi were surprisingly light. The airy little potato puffs floating in the thick, white stinky cheese sauce looked tempting. She said she was getting full and invited me to try some. What started as a bite or two turned into a mop-up operation. I couldn't help myself.

I was so impressed with my lunch (or, more accurately, my friends' lunches) that I planned to return later in the week for dinner.

One of those achingly melancholy tenor solos from an Italian opera was playing on the sound system when a friend and I stopped by Perbacco for dinner on a Thursday night. There were three or four other patrons when we ordered at around 7:15. But by the time our entrées arrived at 7:30, the place had cleared out and we were the only customers.

Dinner at Perbacco is served Thursday through Saturday only, and the crowd consists mainly of theater and concert-hall patrons eating a preperformance meal. You get table service at dinnertime. Our order was taken by the owner, Vittorio Preteroti, who is originally from the island of Capri.

Since there was nobody else in the restaurant, Preteroti volunteered that the kitchen would be happy to whip up anything we wanted, on the menu or not. I asked for the lamb chops, which were on the menu.

"Sorry," Preteroti said, "we sold them all at lunch." He went on to explain that the restaurant does nearly all of its business at lunchtime. "Anything you want" turned out to mean whatever was left over from lunch.

My buddy is weak for Italian sausage, so he took Preteroti up on an offer of a nice plate of sausage and pasta. I stuck with the menu and went for cannelloni from the al forno ("from the oven") items. And once again, I would end up coveting my dining companion's meal.

There was nothing remarkable about the slices of Italian sausage and penne in tomato sauce. It's just that the cannelloni were awful.

Cannelloni are pasta sheets rolled around a filling. The Perbacco version was stuffed with meat and cheese, placed in an oven-proof dish, topped with more sauce and cheese and baked. When the oval dish full of piping-hot pasta came to the table, I was distressed to find that the sauce had separated. A tomato sludge was congealed into a sticky solid layer on the top, and there was a large puddle of water in the bottom of the dish.

Did this watery mess mean that the cannelloni had been frozen and carelessly thawed? Or were they using the wrong kind of tomato sauce? All I can say for sure is that I would never order the cannelloni, or anything else from Perbacco's "al forno" section, again.

When we had finished eating, Preteroti came by our table and started talking to us. It's always nice when the restaurant owner comes by your table and asks if everything is all right. It's often enjoyable when they hang around and chat a little, too.

Preteroti told us the history of the restaurant. He first opened in this office-building space 15 years ago under the name Buco di Bacco. Buco means "hole" in Italian. Like the English phrase "hole-in-the-wall," buco is often used to describe small cafes or basement eateries. Bacco is the Italian spelling for the name of the god of wine, Bacchus. Since wine is often kept in a cellar, Buco di Bacco, or Bacchus's Basement, is a popular restaurant name in Italy.

But when the restaurant chain Buco di Beppo came to Houston, the similarity of the two names caused confusion. (Beppo is a nickname for Giuseppe, or Joseph.) A publicly traded company with restaurants across the country, Buco di Beppo made an arrangement with Preteroti. He wouldn't explain the financial details, but in 2003 he changed the name of his place to Perbacco.

He seemed likable at first, but Preteroti began to lose us when he began a melancholy opera solo of his own about how bad business was, how the downtown renovation had taken all his parking spaces and how everybody who worked in the office building was on some silly diet. When he told us how unappreciated his wonderful Italian restaurant really was, we rolled our eyes in unison.

Like Artie Bucco, the owner and head chef of Nuovo Vesuvio on The Sopranos, Preteroti didn't seem to realize when his tableside banter ceased to be entertaining. Or maybe he wanted to go home, and this was his way of getting rid of us. Whatever his motives, we asked for the check and made a hasty exit rather than listen to him anymore.

I wouldn't go back to Perbacco for dinner unless I was on my way to the theater, in which case it really is one of the best of a handful of options. But I highly recommend Perbacco's quick counter service at lunchtime. The prices are reasonable, the food can be good, and the atmosphere is friendly and fun. But learn from my mistakes and ignore the menu. Order the fresh-tasting dishes off the daily-special board instead.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh