First Look at Caffe Bello

Tony Vallone has officially invaded Lower Westheimer.

The Montrose dining scene has long been a bastion of quirky restaurants -- whether upscale or ultra-casual -- and seeing an old-school, old guard River Oaks restaurateur like Tony Vallone move into the turf was unusual to say the least.

Visiting Caffe Bello last night, which opened last week in the building previously occupied by La Strada, was a bit like seeing your newly-divorced college sociology professor show up to a kegger. He's trying a little too hard to fit in, because he knows he's ridiculously out of place and out of his element. He's wearing "hip" clothes and trying to use "rad" lingo. No one really understands why he's there or who told him to show up. And yet, at the end of the night, you've all relaxed and accepted the fact that he's there and you're all making the best of it. He's telling funny jokes, he's not being creepy towards the girls and, most importantly, he brought some great beer.

I have no idea why Vallone -- who has established, tried-and-true restaurants and concepts in parts of town that are more in keeping with his primary demographic -- has decided to open a restaurant in Montrose. But, in spite of myself, I like it.

On the restaurant's Twitter account, an early status update from Vallone himself said, [sic] "excited about new will be very casual, well priced funky Italian caffe w/ great natural foods to die for." I'm not sure if "funky" to Vallone means deliberately mismatched light fixtures inside an otherwise sober, formal-looking interior complete with tacky, passé Venetian plaster on the walls, but I'm not a huge fan of the revamped dining room at all.

That said, the service and the food are -- so far -- superb. "I feel like I'm being waited on by five people," whispered my dining companion last night. And I agreed with her. In typical Tony's style, you're never at a loss for water, silverware, bread, anything you could possibly need. The regimented waitstaff seem to read your mind. It has a slight tendency to come off as overwhelming and overattentive at times -- but that might be more a function of being accustomed to more casual service in Montrose on the whole.

And the food... When The Rockwell Room imploded a few months ago, the edgy, tattooed chef Michael Dei Maggi ended up working for the serious, sedate Tony Vallone, a move which has prompted many in the industry to place bets on how long this partnership will last. But if the gloriously modern yet restrained Italian food last night is any indication, Dei Maggi will hopefully stick around for a long time.

We split a pizzetta -- small pizzas ranging from $6 to $11 -- along with two "piccolo" starters and a "grande" main course, as well as dessert and two "artisan" cocktails. "Look what Bobby Heugel has done to this city," my companion laughed good-naturedly. "Artisanal cocktails are everywhere now!"

The pizzetta started the meal on a maddening note: It was so delicious, so pitch perfect, that I worried every other dish would be downhill from there. Delicate yet meaty strips of bresaola -- air-cured beef -- topped a pizza made with taleggio cheese, sweet pears and a drizzle of truffled honey. It was simultaneously sweet and salty, musty and fresh. The crust was delicate and almost translucent, yet perfectly crispy. It was simply stunning. This pizza will give Marco Wiles -- Vallone's longtime restaurant rival and owner of Dolce Vita, just down the street -- nightmares.

The lampi e tuoni (grilled octopus in a melange of sweet peppers) was the only miss of the savory dishes, the octopus tasting entirely of grill and nothing else. But the pappardelle al Telefono -- highly recommended by our waitress -- elevated the meal back to the high bar set by the pizzetta: creamy, tangy sauce made solely with burrata cheese and fresh tomatoes messily intertwined with long, fat ribbons of pappardelle. Why don't more restaurants serve papparedelle? You could serve roadkill on pappardelle and it would be amazing. I also loved that it was referred to as "Italian junk food" on the menu; a playful, tongue-in-cheek approach like that is needed to tone down the formality of the dining room.

Our main course was the sapori di mare a simple bowl of linguine with a light butter sauce, roasted tomatoes and mixed shellfish: mussels, clams, a few shrimp and a generous heaping of crab meat. It didn't overwhelm with garlic or other spices; the sweet crab meat and thick linguine were a treat on their own.

We, of course, ruined our dinner by ordering the mezzanote trio for dessert. The troubled look on our waitress's face when we did so should have been the indication to turn back, as the trio of chocolate desserts were lifeless and saccharine, a travesty made worse by the unnecessary blizzard of powdered sugar on top.

As we left, my dining companion and I noticed that the bar area was filled with laughter, clinking glasses, lively chatter and about two dozen men: the gays had already come back to reclaim "La Strada" as their own, even if it's now called Caffe Bello and serves decidedly better food. It made us both smile, and eager for Sunday brunches to kick off again.

Vallone might have a few tweaks to make here and there to ultimately fit the neighborhood. (I'd recommend hiring a pastry chef while he's at it.) I can't wait to go back and sit upstairs in what's being advertised as a temperature-controlled patio. I imagine (or hope, at least) that the service and atmosphere up there will be far more casual than the somewhat stuffy main dining room below. With food this good and prices this reasonable ($8 for the amazing pappardelle; $19 for the huge entree and bounty of seafood; most bottles of wine around $25 to $30), there's no other reason that Caffe Bello won't flourish here.

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Katharine Shilcutt