Forget that Fratellini Ristorante Italiano is only six months old. It has an old soul. It's a faithful re-creation of Raoul's Italian Grill, which used to be just a mile down the road at the intersection of Theiss Mail Route and Louetta. A manager at Fratellini says the new place was started by the owner's sons. Like the original, it's dimly lit, located in a modest strip center and features a piano player on Fridays, Saturdays and special occasions.
They're trying to overcome the modest surroundings with a small bar, divided dining area, booths and a lot of artwork on the walls of the retail store variety.
If it had opened in 1975 instead of 2014, Fratellini would be considered mainstream. It hails from a simpler time, before phrases like "farm-to-table" and "locally sourced" became commonplace. Molecular gastronomy was unheard of, and people weren't quite as concerned about whether ingredients were organic. Some wine, salad, pasta with a good red sauce, a juicy steak and good service were all that was needed for a fine meal. We asked the manager if Fratellini could be considered old-school Italian. He said, "Yeah, in the way people just come in here and order what they want, I guess you could call that old school. There aren't many places like this these days."
Fratellini's way of doing things is charming in the same way that old cookbooks are, with their photos in hyperrealistic colors, advice to housewives on how to please their man and recipes for molded salads.
The quirky and blunt waiters are oddly charming, too. Some are Italian by way of New York. On our first visit, our host led us to the back of the restaurant, where the waiter minding the tables there took one look at us, waved him off and declared in a Big Apple accent, "I don't care if the lady's pretty; I already got three tables." We were seated elsewhere, but thanks for the compliment anyway.
It was the beginning of a trippy dinner that made us giggle all the way through, with Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra crooning away on the overhead sound system.
There was no better way to begin than with a dirty martini (with gin, of course) and an old-fashioned. The idle bartender looked as if he needed something to do anyway.
The martini was garnished with two blue-cheese-stuffed olives skewered on a plastic pick and went beyond "dirty." There was so much olive brine in it that it crossed the line right over into filthy. Regardless, it was well-chilled, and any member of the Rat Pack probably would have approved.
The pink hue of the old-fashioned, made with Maker's Mark bourbon, was a little shocking. Forget "good" maraschino cherries; this was full of the neon-red variety and served in a pint glass. Let it not be said that Fratellini is stingy when it comes to drinks.
In a place like this, don't miss the chance to order something that's either on fire or prepared tableside. The spinaci (spinach) salad was both. A cart with a propane-fueled burner was wheeled to the table stocked with fresh spinach, balsamic vinegar and a giant pepper grinder that was about two and a half feet tall. The server sautéed a hearty amount of bacon and mushrooms, then added a dose of brandy that sent impressive flames into the air. He added the spinach, then doused it all with far too much balsamic dressing. Thank goodness the spinach was added at the very end, or the leaves would have collapsed in the inch-deep pool of dressing in the bottom of the bowl.
(At that point, the overhead track lights started to strobe in the most annoying way, so our server decided to just turn them off. Good call.)
The garlicky red sauce with Fratellini's lasagna is administered with as heavy a hand as the balsamic vinegar added to the salad, and the same goes for the broiled Mozzarella melted over the top. Pull aside the cheese, though, and layer upon layer of flat noodles, ground beef and ricotta are just waiting to be discovered. The ricotta, by the way, is in fact imported from New York. (We took a to-go container for the lasagna, and sauce leaked from the box. We joked that the restaurant had added more sauce when packing it up.)
The steaks at Fratellini are in fact quite fine, including an iconic preparation of filet in cognac sauce studded through with green peppercorns. The accompanying potato croquet (which was indeed the approximate size and heft of a croquet ball) was dense, unremarkable and made of overcooked mashed potatoes. However, swirling hunks of it through the peppercorn-studded sauce made everything okay again.
Hoping for more dishes set on fire, we were a little surprised not to find baked Alaska, cherries jubilee or bananas flambé among the desserts. It just seemed like this kind of place would have at least one of those. However, a big slab of tiramisu, chock-full of espresso-laden lady-fingers, more than made up for it. A light dusting of cocoa powder was a lovely accent to the snowy, creamy surface.
We had it with a Keoke coffee, which is spiked with brandy and Kahlúa. Well, what else would you have? (Even though it's a steakhouse after-dinner staple, Keoke coffee originates on the West Coast, not the East. It was invented by a man named George Bullington, who established a place called Bully's Steakhouse near San Diego. "Keoke" is the Hawaiian version of the name "George.")
Conversely, the crème brûlée, messily topped with clunky chunks of strawberries, was disappointing. Underneath the substantial sugar crust, the custard was revealed to be chunky and broken. The crème brûlée was one of only a few misses, another being the carbonara with a surfeit of sautéed onion. (Carbonara purists will be horrified to discover that it's served with Alfredo sauce, not the simpler preparation of egg yolk and Pecorino Romano.)
With the missteps, it would be easy to construe Fratellini as not a good restaurant, but time and again, we'd take a bite of a dish and exclaim, "Hey, that's pretty good." Over and over, classic flavors of tomatoes, beef, garlic, onion, cream and bacon would conspire to win us over despite the technical flaws. Take, for example, the lobster bisque, which arrived at the table looking too pale to be good. Yet it was, with an underlying seafood stock and a nice quantity of lobster chunks giving sufficient balance and meatiness to the cream that had been added.
That's the deal with Fratellini -- just when you're ready to get out, it pulls you back in with another hearty, flavorful -- if imperfect -- dish.
There are several interesting Italian wines by the bottle on the list but disappointingly few by the glass. We longed for a glass of Valpolicella, but weren't willing to fork out a minimum of $88 for a bottle. Instead, contentment was found with a decent glass of Chianti.
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Other than that, this trip to the past won't have too much of an impact on the wallet. A multicourse meal with cocktails, appetizers, entrées and desserts for two put us back only $116.91 before tip.
On a second visit, on a warm, breezy day, Fratellini propped one of the front doors open with a chair. Inside, it still seemed musty and stuffy. Someone needs to tell these folks about Houston humidity. Hopefully they'll find a way to move out of that musty old strip center, hire an interior designer and move into a place a little more worthy of their charm.
Fratellini's resolve to be an old-school Italian restaurant can draw a few chuckles, but they are affectionate, not derisive. It's like finding and opening a long-forgotten box left in the attic and discovering old treasures that seem new once more. For those who long for dining traditions from a simpler time, Fratellini hits a comforting note.
Keoki coffee $7.50 Dirty Blue Martini $8.50 Old-fashioned $8.50 Spinaci salad for two $6 Lobster bisque $7 Lasagna al forno $10 Spaghetti carbonara $12 Fileto al cognac $29 Crème brûlée $6 Cannoli $6 Tiramisu $7