I couldn't muster much more than a grunt of agreement as I sat, inert, wishing I'd worn stretch pants rather than skin-tight capris. To my left in our semicircular maroon leather booth, Tony lounged, eyes half closed, muttering something about feeling like he was on the edge of a food coma. Black-and-white pictures of someone's Sicilian relatives looked on benignly as Eva and I groaned in concurrence. We felt his pain.
But a little pain isn't always a bad thing, particularly if it's induced by a meal at Maggiano's, a recent Post Oak Boulevard addition to the Galleria area. This is the place where two avowed chocoholics could barely put a dent in a tall slab of chocolate and chocolate-mousse layer cake. This is the place from which we took home leftovers sufficient for the weekend ahead. This is the place where the comforts of a large meal come before the ambitions of an innovative one.
For all its admirable qualities, the Houston link in the 11-city Maggiano's chain -- owned by Brinker International, the industry Godzilla that's also the parent company of Romano's Macaroni Grill, Chili's and eatZi's -- feels carefully calculated for mass consumption, the very antithesis of an authentic "little Italy" eatery. Indeed, one could fit at least a half-dozen traditional trattorias in the Houston location alone. The place may aspire to be a neighborhood ristorante, but it comes closer to staking a middle ground between the Olive Garden and Tony's. As such, it does a fine job, creating an atmosphere in which it's easy to relax and focus on the food.
We could have cobbled together a deliciously varied meal from just appetizers, soup, salad and the array of breads that arrived with the now-de rigueur olive oil, basil and ground pepper dip. Of the 17 appetizer selections, we chose the baked shrimp oreganata ($11.95, appetizer; $19.95, entrée), and "Barb's Spinach and Artichoke al Forno" ($7.95). The dozen or so plump jumbo shrimp were lightly coated with fine, buttery-tasting bread crumbs. The rich spinach-and-artichoke dip was a gracious mozzarella-swirled concoction that unfortunately seemed long on spinach and short on artichoke.
The minestrone ($1.95, cup; $3.95, bowl) heartily combined the usual suspects: zucchini, carrots, onions, tomatoes, garbanzos and pasta in a nearly translucent broth. Pairing the soup with the mountainous Italian salad ($6.95, half-order; $10.95, full order) would make an excellent hangover remedy, if not a food-coma cure.
We'd dug into the appetizers with such gusto that we soon began fretting about being able to eat our entrées. When the gargantuan meals did arrive, not one of us, in fact, made a significant dent in them. We tried to savor that night's special -- roast beef that was perfectly tender and seasoned, leading us to believe it was slow-cooked all day -- but were defeated as surely as the Italians at the Tour de France. We couldn't even finish one portion of the chicken giardiniera ($14.95), three breaded, panfried and overly buttered chicken breasts. The celery, onions, carrots and bell pepper that accompanied the dish were both tender and crisp in a light vinegar-laced broth, but that didn't stop us from leaving most of them untouched. Likewise, the mostaccioli eggplant marinara ($10.95, half-order; $13.95, full) remained mostly intact, the result of a combination of a satiated appetite, a too-sweet marinara and mushy eggplant.
When the infamous desserts arrived, they were superfluous. We had already entered the first stages of a food coma. I took the first stab of the chocolate zuccoto cake ($4.95) and decided that I'd be willing to risk a prolonged unconsciousness in the name of journalism. The alternating layers of cocoa mousse and cake were velvety and sweetened to perfection. Still, Eva and I eventually jettisoned any hope of finishing the dessert, and it too took up temporary residence in a to-go box. Tony was savvier, ordering Italian lemon ice ($2.95), a light, tangy, cleansing end to a daunting meal.
I was much better prepared for a return trip to Maggiano's, able to focus on the subtleties of the place instead of the stomachache caused by scaling these heaping portions. The service was spottier than on the first visit -- a lipstick-marked wine glass was still perched on our table when we sat down, and our entrées arrived at staggered intervals -- but the food, by and large, still held up to scrutiny.
The seasonal stuffed artichoke ($6.95) suffered from an excess of the very bread crumbs that worked so well with the oreganata. The linguine with white clam sauce ($11.95, half-order; $14.95, full) came with agreeably cooked clams, but the sauce tasted like one of those dry pasta mixes that populate too many supermarket aisles. Winners were the mushroom ravioli al forno ($13.95) and another dessert, the pear crostada with vanilla gelato ($4.95). The ravioli were stuffed with finely chopped portobello mushrooms; when combined with the lightly browned mozzarella that topped the little pockets, the dish had a meaty, hearty taste. The crostada's sugar-dusted crust housed warm, delicate pear slices. Topped with a smooth, soothing gelato, it provided a subtle end to a meal at an otherwise unabashed eatery.
Maggiano's may never win any awards for progressive dishes or edgy decor, but for homey food in a familial atmosphere, this restaurant has devised a workable formula. Just remember to fast ahead of time.