Houstonians are a funny bunch. Those that live in the suburbs have no qualms about traversing the city for a nice meal, while most inner-loopers balk at the idea of dining anywhere that requires logging more than eight minutes of freeway time. I belong to the second group, and had I not been enticed by a special on pizza and wine (the former described as "cracker-thin and crisp, with lots of slightly charred bubbles"), it's very unlikely I have would have thought to try Fratelli's Authentic Italian Cuisine, an unassuming restaurant tucked away quietly in a strip mall off of Highway 290. And that would have been a real shame.
On Monday and Tuesday evenings throughout the month of March, Fratelli's head chef Teresa Tadeo Whitman is offering a special on pizza, made in an authentic wood-burning oven built by her husband. The 10" pies range in price from $8.95 to $11.95 and come with a salad, with house wine for $3.5o a glass from 5-9:30 p.m. Hoping for a dining companion, I forwarded the press release to a couple of girls, and one suggested turning the evening into a birthday celebration for a mutual friend.
We arrived at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening to find the restaurant eerily quiet and mostly empty. An hour later, most of the tables were filled, and I was thankful the staff had the foresight to seat our loud, rambunctious group of eight at a table away from the main dining area. Once the wine began to flow (an by god it did) Chef Teresa personally delivered an off-the-menu treat described as "garlic chipotle cheesecake," more savory than sweet and divinely rich when spread atop the surrounding pieces of toast. The bruschetta and Fungi Ripieni -- mushroom caps stuffed with crab meat, spinach and Parmesan cheese -- were both equally impressive, but the standout starter was Insalata di Pere, a spinach salad in light vinaigrette topped with thinly cut slices of pear topped with generous gobs of melted gorgonzola cheese.
Our initial plan was to order three or four pizzas to share, but having been so impressed by the appetizers, we decided to try a few pasta dishes as well, including Fettuccine Alfredo and Tagliatelle con Ragu Bolognese, described by Alison Cook as one of the city's best. While Fratelli's Bolognese is fantastic, it was the fresh handmade fettuccine in creamy alfredo sauce seasoned with nutmeg that had everyone raving, several swearing it was the best they'd ever had.
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The pizzas arrived hot and fresh from the oven, lightly charred and crispy as promised. Despite initially meeting protest from certain members opposed to anchovies, the unanimous group favorite was the Pizza Neptuno, which also included fresh oregano grown in planters on the side of the restaurant, calamari, and shrimp.
In an evening full of pleasant surprises, perhaps the most unexpected was the check -- little more than $25 dollars per person despite several appetizers, many (many) glasses of wine, and a slice of tiramisu for the birthday girl.