In plain sight, in a strip center off I-59 and Buffalo Speedway, you’ll find the best chef making pasta from start to finish in the city. He doesn’t have a PR agent, he doesn’t do Instagram, but what he does with good ingredients, simple technique and passion is nothing short of spectacular. Pasta, pizza, dolce and espresso — chef Roberto Crescini's food, at Fresco! Café Italiano, shines in every facet of Italian cuisine. After I complimented him one afternoon over the ordering window, watching as he pushed pasta dough into an extruder, he shrugged and responded, “it’s just Italian.” Upon returning again, this time for dinner, it was confirmed that his talent was a rare find.
The rather basic outward appearance of Fresco! Café Italiano brilliantly sets the guest up to be impressed. Green trim marks the walls of the simple, 12-table dining room. Parsley and sage grow out of old San Marzano tomato cans that are placed on bar tables. I sat myself and was pleasantly surprised by the juxtaposed stainless-steel Reed and Barton flatware wrapped in a paper napkin. In case you happen to be rolling in with a 20-year Barolo, you’ll have Bormioli stemware to drink it out of. Suitable tools indeed. It’s apparent from small touches like these that chef Crescini knows what’s important to spend money on.
The menu is pretty straightforward, no flowery descriptions or trumped-up prices. I did a double take when I saw the price of the small Caesar salad, just $3. In fact, the most expensive thing on the menu is the Grilled Mediterranean Octopus at $16. The healthy crowd will be pleased with the options to add grilled chicken, salmon or shrimp to salads and pastas. And fear not, gourmands, this BYOB Italian find will satisfy you too.
A sign directs guests to Order at Counter, where Felix, the chef’s right-hand man, is often working. A peek inside the kitchen reveals a big blob of pizza dough on one counter and pint containers of perfectly portioned pasta on the other. Chef Crescini appeared to be alone in the kitchen.
“Just you tonight?” I asked him.
“I’m passionate,” he responded.
I had brought some leftover Barbera and Chianti and asked for the octopus, the chef’s preferred pasta and pizza pairings for my wine, and cannolo and espresso to finish.
Soon after, a plate with two different pizzas arrived. One had paper-thin slices of glistening salami on top of golden-brown blotched mozzarella, while the other had prosciutto di Parma shaved so thin you could see the arugula beneath it. The Romana-style pizza isn’t thin crispy, it’s thin crunchy. All the ingredients were so well made and simply assembled that it was hard to restrain myself after just a few slices.
Whenever I see octopus on the menu, I have to order it; after all, they are the smartest of all the ingredients, if not a tad dim when it comes to things like nets. The Grilled Mediterranean Octopus was the second course to hit the table. As the dish was set in front of me, the first thing I smelled was the ocean. I inspected the big hunks of tentacles with approval — he was getting the eight-pound Spanish Mediterranean octopus in. The good stuff. The tentacles were crisp from the grill and the texture of the meaty octopus was the perfect combination of tender and chewy. I initially wanted more salt, but refrained. I was glad I did because the more I ate, the more I noticed the subtle and beautiful combination of spaghetti, olive oil, tomato and basil.
I couldn’t wait for the pasta. “Carbonara,” Felix said, as he placed the bowl of maccheroni in front of me. The flavor was reminiscent of cacio e pepe more than my experience with carbonara. Chef Crescini later explained to me that carbonara is four things. Pepper, pecorino, egg and guanciale (cured pork jowl.) Both carbonara and cacio e pepe are difficult à la minute (prepared to order) sauces to make. There are so many different ways it can go wrong, but he nailed it. The tickling presence of peppercorn was perfectly balanced with guanciale and pecorino, the decadent sauce gripped the pasta as if they had always been meant for each other.
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I finished my meal with an order of cannoli and espresso. The golden-brown cannolo shell is stuffed with the best mascarpone money can buy and studded with bittersweet chocolate chips and candied orange. The espresso had a nice kick to it and thick crema on top. The first time I visited, my lunch dining companion articulately described the espresso as “so thick you could cut it with a knife.” The perfect finish to my meal, I thought, and then Chef came by my table.
He told me the history of Turkish pirates and the origin of Pecorino Fossa and how the dish carbonara was meant to have all the nutrients a carbon maker would need to be strong. He explained how cioppino was really just a poor fishermans’ stew of fish heads and tails and how after a victorious battle, one of Napoleon’s desperate chefs invented Chicken Marengo.
Every dish has an origin and he knows them all. When you ask him about his food, first, he’ll attest that his most important ingredient is passion, and second, that his food is fresh. I tasted both with each bite, and better yet, it’s the most inexpensive Italian fare that I’ve found in Houston.