Restaurant Reviews

Getting Your Ital-Mex Fusion Fix at Bellissimo

Take a virtual tour of Bellissimo in this week's slideshow.

You know that tired old bumblebee metaphor people trot out when they're trying to describe something that shouldn't work but does? I always found it rather silly — and maybe a bit insulting to the bumblebee itself, which knows what it's doing — until those few times when I found the analogy fitting.

Bellissimo is a bumblebee of a restaurant. Nothing about this odd, charming Italian-Mexican restaurant in a converted Chinese buffet on Airline should work. But it does.

Black beans, jalapeños, cilantro and diced tomatoes shouldn't work in an Italian pasta dish, but at Bellissimo they do, in harmony with chargrilled chicken and a delicately flavored jalapeño fettuccine whose gentle green ribbons provide a festive backdrop for the fiesta of ingredients. This dish — the aptly named Pasta alla Bellissimo — is one of the house specials and is representative of the intriguing fusion fare you'll find from chef/owner Javier Machuca.

Before opening Bellissimo in mid-2012, Machuca had accumulated 23 years of cooking at some of Houston's most beloved Italian restaurants. He spent a decade at La Strada, then another 13 years as the executive chef at the downtown location of Mia Bella. Along the way, Machuca gathered two decades' worth of knowledge and techniques, which he's now employing to great acclaim in dishes that fuse the two most prominent cuisines in his life: Mexican and Italian.

It's not just in the fettuccine dishes, either, such as the popular Calle 25, which introduces smoked sausage, earthy sun-dried tomatoes and a creamy alfredo sauce to the fresh diced jalapeños, grilled chicken and jalapeño fettuccine that form the base of the Pasta alla Bellissimo.

Machuca's influence and deft techniques are also found in a jaw-droppingly good lasagna, the layers impossibly fine and separating pockets of finely ground beef under a blanket of mozzarella and a marinara sauce that tastes far more like the cumin-laced chile gravy you'd find on good beef enchiladas. It was a stunning find. Although I rarely suffer dining envy, my dining companion was provoking full-scale jealousy on a recent Monday night as he saved me three bites and gobbled up the rest of the enchilada-esque lasagna for himself.

I don't blame him. I would have saved him only one bite.

That Monday night was my second visit to Bellissimo, after an incredibly successful Friday night dinner that left me craving more. The restaurant is conducive to a variety of meals — double dates, family dinners, weekday evening wind-downs, business lunches and anything of the casual-dining persuasion, really — although evenings have been my favorite time to visit so far.

This is when you can take advantage of the restaurant's BYOB policy that charges a $10 corkage fee until Bellissimo gets its TABC license. We brought in a Cabernet Franc one night and a Belgian Saison another, because why stick to strictly Italian wines when the food is this fun?

Nighttime also provides a soft-focus lens through which to view what is admittedly a rough location inside a massive, renovated space that used to house the absolutely abysmal Jumbo Buffet (which opened and closed inside of ten months). That said, this new location is prime real estate compared to Bellissimo's former location a few blocks away inside a lime-green shack that couldn't hold the crowds flocking to eat Machuca's food each night.

With the move, Bellissimo is now even more of a neighborhood restaurant here in the greater Heights area than it was before. It's still crowded at night, but there's not a wait anymore. Lots of touches have been brought over from the previous space — the old-school red napkins spun into thin fabric towers on each gleaming white plate, the clean black tablecloths topped with a square of white butcher paper, the sincere and attentive service — and the old maroon curtains that once fronted Bellissimo's small windows have multiplied to cover the massive bank of plate-glass windows that line the front of the new space. The curtains mute the brightness of the sun during lunch and give the dining room a charming, homespun feel.

There's still a lot of work to do in the otherwise bare-bones space, but that's one of the things I like about Bellissimo. You get the impression that Machuca and his family — who help him run the restaurant — are in this for the long haul, excited to grow into this enormous new space and make it better every day.

I already feel that the food improves every time I visit Bellissimo, as does the service from the young waitstaff. They're able to anticipate your needs in a manner not often seen outside of older, established restaurants with equally established servers. The food, too, has that consistency that comes from years of cooking and recooking and perfecting recipes.

On my first visit, I found the crab cakes so good I thought they must have been a fluke. The densely packed patties were almost all crab and very little cake, two of them nearly floating on a golden pond of beurre blanc. But not just any beurre blanc — one that contained far more butter than is typical, emulsified into a thick, velvety sauce saved from being too buttery (yes, there is such a thing) with light touches of lemon and chipotle. I ordered the crab cakes again on my third visit and found them every bit as lovely as the first time. (And this time I used a spoon to eat half the sauce on the plate.)

That same butter sauce is also put to good use on the grilled red snapper, plated on a bed of angel hair pasta and covered with crabmeat, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and twin grilled shrimp that are paired in an embrace on top of the whole affair. It's a tiny little touch, but one that brought a smile to my face when I saw it. As with every dish at Bellissimo, you can both taste and see the effort that went into its execution from start to finish. Nothing here comes from a box. Nothing is frozen. Nothing is cooked ahead and reheated. Everything is fresh.

Not everything is perfect, naturally, as with a couple of so-so salads: a Caesar that desperately needed dressing, and a caprese salad with somewhat bland beefsteak tomatoes under otherwise nice ingredients: broad, plush basil leaves and hunks of passable mozzarella cheese. And the carcioffi fritti — fried artichoke hearts — sounded terrific in theory, but I was puzzled to see only one artichoke heart quartered and fried instead of the promised four. There's a pretty substantial difference between "four artichoke hearts," as the menu states, and one artichoke heart cut into four pieces, but I couldn't fault the wonderfully spiced poblano pepper sauce underneath nor the $5 price tag (which should have been my first clue that I wouldn't be getting four whole hearts).

I'd also like to see more of a push at lunch, since Bellissimo is already open during the day anyway. Take one of the terrific menu items — the thin-crust pizzas that cleverly repurpose the most popular pasta dishes into pizza toppings, or the meaty lasagna or the eggplant parm that's bursting with fresh vegetables under more of that chile gravy-like marinara sauce — and make it the daily special. Offer a smaller portion with a correspondingly smaller price.

Luckily, there are two lunch-only sandwiches that are served on crusty Italian bread like a classic grinder. The meat-filled sandwich with plenty of pepperoni and sausage is my favorite of the two, and you can offset at least some of the protein and carbs with a pleasant spring mix salad that comes on the side (this one dressed nicely in a tangy vinaigrette).

Lunch is just one area in which I hope to see Bellissimo grow and mature over the years. And I do say "years" intentionally, because I have a feeling this wonderful little Heights trattoria will be around for many to come.

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Katharine Shilcutt