There's a dish at the new Mascalzone on Shepherd that will have everyone at the table jockeying for the next bite. It's a bowl of creamy, rich, Parmesan-laden risotto, its indented center holding a well of chopped, braised veal and carrots in jus. Accenting it is a big spoonful of deep green gremolata (or "gremolada" spelled the Italian way), a condiment of lemon zest, garlic and parsley that's like a thicker, simpler cousin of pesto but with parsley instead of basil.
The dish is called risotto alla parmigiana con vitello brasato alla milanese e gremolada — a descriptive mouthful. Here's the translation: Milanese-style braised veal with Parmesan risotto and gremolata. People who don't like to share should order their own.
There are so many bad risottos in Houston that it's worth crowing about finding a good one. As with its meat-laden Spanish cousin, paella, few restaurants have figured out how to adapt the preparation of risotto to a restaurant kitchen. It's labor-intensive and time-consuming. The correct short-grained, starchy rice — usually Arborio — is needed to get the desired result. Risotto has to be cooked slowly and stirred often to free the exterior starch needed to bind the individual grains into a cohesive whole.
It would be easy to blow off Mascalzone as a "chain restaurant" and assign to it all the insinuations of mediocrity many chains deserve. There's no reason to cast too many aspersions here, though. There are only four locations. Two are in London, where Mascalzone was founded by former Italian Olympic boxer Andrea Magi, and two are in Houston. (The other, larger location here is at 12126 Westheimer and sports a big, state-of-the-art Marana-Forni pizza oven.)
Unlike most chains, this one went out of its way to find a chef who already had a good track record and some respect in Houston — Alberto Baffoni. He created quite a buzz at Simposio in the late '90s and early 2000s. His follow-up jobs were the critically acclaimed but depressingly short-lived Sappori and a curiously short stint at Mezzanotte in Cypress.
We can hope Baffoni plans to stick around Mascalzone for a while. The menu is certainly ambitious enough, with dozens of items that take up both the front and the back of a legal-size sheet. It would take a long time to go through them all, but there are some real charmers here — and a few to pass by.
One of Baffoni's signature dishes is vitello tonnato, or cold veal that has been sliced paper-thin and covered with a creamy, thick tuna aioli. That's right: It's essentially good-quality tuna blended into homemade mayonnaise. It sounds bizarre to the uninitiated, but it's wonderfully tart, rich and balanced. Capers, lemon, finely diced tomato and olive oil add color to the top. Somehow, the veal is enhanced, not overpowered, by the strong flavors, and Baffoni's might be the finest example of this dish in Houston. If there's one complaint, it's that we encountered a few chunks of lemon pulp that contributed needless jolts of sourness. Regardless, it's even more outstanding when carefully placed atop the warm rosemary focaccia bread.
Another winning dish here is the melanzane alla parmigiana. It's a stack of eggplant slices in a shallow bath of herby tomato sauce. Big pieces of Parmesan cheese are melted over the top. The spongy, moist eggplant absorbs all the strong garlic and basil flavors from the tomato sauce, and for a starter, it's a pretty generous portion that could serve as an entrée for lighter appetites.
Tagliatelle di Mamma Teresa proved to be divisive. It all depends on whether there's any fondness for the slightly bitter flavor of the bits of radicchio strewn throughout the Parmesan and garlic cream sauce. Is it a bitter foil or a welcome distraction? Ultimately, that depends on personal preference, but there's no denying the appeal of the long, wide, tender strands of tagliatelle. Interestingly, Mascalzone's pasta selections are divided into two sections on the menu: "Homemade Pasta" and "Pasta," a tacit acknowledgment that fresh isn't always better. Sometimes the texture of a dried pasta is more appropriate for a dish.
Mascalzone's namesake is one of the least interesting dishes once you get past its clever construction. The "mascalzone" is composed of fairly good, tender dough, half of which is folded into a calzone, the other half being formed and rounded into a half of a pizza crust.
In this case, two halves do not make a whole. The ham inside the calzone could have been those rectangular cold cuts from the grocery-store refrigerator case. For that matter, the mozzarella could have come from just a few cases away in the same store. On the pizza side, the briny whole black olives couldn't make up for the bland salami, and sliced mushrooms are mild to begin with.
Much like that two-faced dish, the restaurant's interior has two halves, too. One is ugly, and the other isn't. There's an overhang above the kitchen pass. Someone tried to conceal it under dozens of plastic tomatoes and grape clusters. Maybe that person was going for a "shabby chic" look. He got the shabby part right.
On the attractive side is the long, windowed space they call the wine room. It's airy and light, and there are three fun chandeliers made of stainless-steel ladles and cooking spoons. Throughout the restaurant are lightweight but comfortable chairs in a colorful assortment of red, white and green to match the Italian flag. They stand attendant at natural wood tables.
Ordering wine here is fun if you don't mind leaving your drink choice in someone else's hands. Simply say, "I'd like a glass of red wine," and the server will bring you one, no questions asked. The first time, we ended up with a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso the color of rubies and a bit reminiscent of deep-red cherries. It worked with the salmon. On our second visit, a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon was brought to pair with the braised veal and risotto. It was a refreshing, casual change from agonizing over a wine list, and the servers are capable of making reasonable choices. They're not going to just reflexively bring out the most expensive glass on the menu.
While the wine program is well in hand, the beer list is anemic. There are only seven beers, and it really says something when the most exciting choices are Moretti and Peroni — both requisite and unsurprising in an Italian restaurant. The cocktail list might be okay, but it would first require a bartender who can execute a proper old-fashioned. Ours consisted of whiskey, ice and an orange slice for garnish. If there were bitters or sugar, they were of the ninja kind and undetectable by normal human beings.
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The semifreddo al torroncino is a beautiful finishing touch to a meal. It's shot through with caramelized almonds, which give bracing reality to delicate, slightly frozen nougat. The pale oblong bar, striped with rivulets of dark chocolate, is a soothing end that will leave diners marveling at its texture.
The Mascalzone location on Shepherd is a fine choice for diners seeking an Italian adventure in the borderland between Washington Avenue and The Heights. The frills are not in the modest setting. They're on the plates, right where they belong.
1500 Shepherd, 713-862-9700. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Melanzane alla parmigiana $13 Vitello tonnato $13.50 Antipasto misto $18.50 Rigatoni all'amatriciana $14.50 Penne all'arrabbiata $12.50 Tagliatelle di Mamma Teresa $16.50 Mascalzone $18 Risotto alla parmigiana con vitello brasato $22 Salmone Sofia Loren $27 Sautéed wild mushrooms $7.50 Crispy kale $6 Semifreddo al torroncino $8