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Giacomo's, Mean Girls, and Houston's Fear of Change

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I'll just come right out and say that Giacomo's Cibe e Vino is my favorite new restaurant of 2009. It's an ideal spot for a casual date night or low-key dinner with friends. The dining area is a light-filled sanctuary complete with patio and bar. Food is fresh, deliciously energizing, and reasonably priced. It has fantastic options for carnivores and herbivores, dieters and non. There are no outrageous claims of authenticity. And it's centrally located on an easy-to-get-to spot with plenty of parking in River Oaks.

Oddly enough, it's that last part that's been causing some problems. Owner Lynette Hawkins has decided to discontinue Giacomo's signature counter service at dinner starting today. "My customers have spoken," she says, "and they want table-service when they join us for dinner." Turns out, the multi-faceted service at Giacomo's didn't quite make sense to the neighborhood crowd. Yes, there are multiple ways to place your order -- there's a list of quickly made pastas, another list of more time-intensive entrees, and a cafeteria-style display of rotating antipastos, salads and soups -- but it's nothing complicated. In fact, interactivity is an integral part of the Giacomo's dining experience. The roasted cauliflower, for example, sounds flat as a line item, but appears perfectly regal when you see it resplendent among hazelnuts and capers on the buffet. But no matter: Why should you try something new when you can just complain enough to have things done your way?

It's ironic that Houston, a diverse city of four million, can be so stubborn. We fear change, even teensy-tiny ones like counter service at an upscale restaurant. Restaurants that break from the mold fail, and chefs with menus that are "too" innovative are ostracized. Even Lynette Hawkins, a seasoned restaurateur who certainly knows the secret handshake, is thwarted by the city's conservatism and unspoken rules. Comfort food only! Every menu must include bread pudding and something fried! Cheese makes it taste better! But you know what? As Cady Heron wisely points out, calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier, and calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. There's no need to fear what you don't know, Houston.

Thankfully, the change does not signify a demise. Otherwise, where would I get the best minestrone soup in town? The Giacomo's version is a clean and delicious combination, heavy on the carrots and kale, swimming in a complex vegetarian broth that's made in-house daily. The Pappardelle al Telefono is downright addictive: wide, flat pasta noodles slathered in garlic, oil, basil, cherry tomatoes, and chunky mozzarella. And the real show-stealer has to be the half-moon pasta filled with Swiss chard and goat cheese in a sage butter sauce. The handmade packets have the exact texture we wish every noodle could emulate, and the creamy filling provides just the right accompaniment. Simple, satisfying, dreamy.

Giacomo's will continue its quick counter service from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and offer table-service from 5 p.m. until closing, Tuesdays through Sundays. The location has been a revolving door of doomed tenants in years past -- Sausalito, Palazzo's, Pan y Agua -- and we're keeping our fingers, toes and eyes crossed that this iteration sticks around.

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