First Look at Sapori

It looks like Chef Alberto Baffoni might have finally landed in a spot suited perfectly for his talents after years of bouncing around, most recently at the ill-fated Bohemia, after leaving his initial Houston post at Simposio (which is also now closed): Saprori Ristorante Italiano.

No longer is Baffoni restricted to cooking an odd mishmash of Russian and other Eastern European cuisines; Sapori has brought him back around to his old roots, dishing up well-executed Northern Italian standards as well as a few unexpected treats, as I found recently during Sapori's Sunday brunch.

The old metallic palm trees from Isla Ixtapa -- the restaurant that formerly occupied the space -- are still in the dining room. They're a bit odd in contrast to the rest of the jewel-toned Italian decor, but thoughts of this clash vanished as my parents and I sat in the breeze from the restaurant's wide-open French doors, the creamy ring of Baffoni's vitello tonnato ($10) a sight for sore eyes as it landed on our table.

We ate it with gusto. The classic summertime dish was appropriately light and tangy, from the capers, to the pale shivers of lemon, all the way down to the slightly salty sauce. The clear, bright flavors more than made up for my overly sweet Bloody Mary and piqued my hopes for the rest of brunch.

My mother had found the Benedict al Salmone ($15) on the brunch menu (which is full of little treats like a Valentina omelet with prosciutto, asparagus and fontina cheese; uova alla moda with vegetable strudel and spaghetti), and she lit upon it straight away. My father and I were more swayed by the lunch menu, however, and ordered a scaloppine di pollo ($15) and the bistecca panini ($13).

I have never been more disappointed not to have ordered a "boring old dish" (the thought in my head when my dad placed his order) than I was when he received the star of the meal. It was tender chicken that cut quickly with a fork, barely blanketed with a rich yet restrained sauce, sunny with lemon and luscious with butter. If Baffoni can make an old standby like this sing, you know the man can do just about anything.

My mother's Eggs Benedict benefited from the salty smoked salmon, partnering up nicely with the tangy Hollandaise. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that her fruit bowl contained fruit other than bland, colorless bits of melon: orange slices, strawberries, pineapple, blueberries, grapefruit -- this was an actual fruit bowl.

My panini was equally wealthy with quality ingredients: peppery arugula, spicy horseradish, fat Roma tomatoes and medium-rare rib-eye that oozed into the rosemary-scented focaccia bread. And there was more than enough for me to eat in one sitting; the other half went home to serve as dinner.

Although we were all disappointed with the undersalted bread pudding, it was the only other low point of a solid meal highlighted by a visit from Baffoni himself, just like old times. The chef is well-known for visiting each table in his restaurant, the same jaunty, floppy maroon hat on his head as usual. Only this time, we were the only table for Baffoni to visit.

There was no one else in Sapori throughout our meal aside from Baffoni and our cheerful waitress. Baffoni indicated that it was because he'd just started serving brunch, but I wondered if the place simply hadn't been advertising itself very well. I dearly hope that it does, and that more people in West Houston will take notice of the excellent Italian food -- not Italian-American, mind you, but the real stuff -- right in their backyard.

On the other hand, Sapori is in the same small strip center as favorites The Burger Guys and Edomae Sushi -- both of which draw people from all over the city -- so perhaps there's promise for this location yet. Baffoni is in his prime here, a return to form from days past at Simposio. In an ideal world, that in and of itself should secure its future. Here's to hope.

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Katharine Shilcutt