Italian Food in Bloom in The Woodlands

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I appear to have unconsciously started a yearly tradition for myself: Discovering terrific Italian food in or near The Woodlands every spring.

Last April, it was Capri Pasta Pizza & More, a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall in Spring run by Italian-born Barbara Coglianese that specializes in beautifully constructed lasagna and house-made mozzarella di bufala.

This year, it was Aldo's Cucina Italiana in Shenandoah, just one exit north of The Woodlands. Both restaurants are in unassuming locations right off the I-45 feeder road, both feature excellent homemade pasta and both have Italian chefs who know their way around a raviolo.

Aldo's just happens to feature an old Houston stalwart -- half-Egyptian, half-Sicilian chef Aldo el Sharif -- who's landed back in the suburbs after a couple of decades spent bouncing around the city. And his new place is the subject of this week's cafe review.

The dining room at Aldo's reads "suburban upscale," but lest that be seen as derogatory, let me assure you it is not. This is a nice restaurant, meant for nice meals out with dates or business associates or family dinners. It's also much more relaxed than "city upscale," in which there can often be much fussing and preening.

"City upscale" is what Aldo el Sharif used to specialize in, back when he was heading up Aldo's Dining Con Amore in the old house on Lower Westheimer which is now home to Feast. The same high-minded ideals are still in play here at Aldo's Cucina Italiana, but you'll pay less for the dishes -- even now, a decade later -- and although el Sharif isn't as gregarious as he once was known to be, you might enjoy it more. After all, there are printed menus here.

As The Woodlands and its neighboring areas grow larger and wealthier by the year, more and more restaurants (and grocery stores like Trader Joe's) are headed to the area. Yet there are still complaints from people that the restaurants -- many of them chains -- aren't living up to the expectations of the food fans who live there.

Last year, I was happy to find that Capri was an exception to that rule. This year, it's Aldo's Cucina Italiana. And who knows what I'll find in The Woodlands by this time next year.

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