"Just drove by and Camerata is hopping on a Sunday night," my friend texted me at around 6 p.m. this past Sunday. I arrived shortly thereafter to confirm her assessment. It was definitely hopping.
Even before pushing open the doors, I noticed that a nice crowd had gathered at Camerata. The atmosphere was festive, there were people everywhere and what's more, a door between Camerata and Paulie's was open, so that the two spaces, which normally operate separately, were interconnected.
"Want a glass of wine?" Ryan Cooper asked me from behind the Camerata bar. "I'll come back after I've had some food," I replied, making my way over to the Paulie's side of the house, where a substantial line had formed; it stretched almost to the rear of the restaurant.
Paulie's is normally closed on Sundays, which is why it often plays host to pop-up events like the one that was happening that evening, the Mangiamaccheroni's Sicilian Seafood pop-up.
Helmed by Felipe Riccio, Bart Benton, Matt Wenaas and a crew of their friends and family, the ambitious pop-up was immediately inundated with orders. Most of the attendees ordered more than one dish from the menu, so the team was swamped from the beginning of the evening. People had to wait as long as 45 minutes to an hour for their food.
Having experienced several pop-ups of this nature, I didn't worry about the wait time too much. You kind of have to play this guessing game with pop-ups like these: "Should I go early and wait in line so that I won't have to wait once I place my order?" Or, "Should I go later, when the line has dispersed, and risk them running out of the food?"
In an ideal world, you'd go within the set hours and not have to wait at all. But this was reality; I arrived at 6:15 p.m. and was prepared to wait. I knew there was wine a-plenty at Camerata, and observed many diners going back and forth between the spaces, carrying glasses or bottles to share with friends. And as always at these chef-driven pop-ups, a who's who of industry folk -- chefs, servers, bartenders, sommeliers and more -- had come out in support of the event. Chefs I recognized included Revival Market's Adam Dorris, Cordúa Restaurants' David Cordúa, Underbelly's Lyle Bento, Pappas Bros' Michael Gaspard, and Mark Parmley, who is back in Houston after a stint in Alaska and was most recently at Ciao Bello here.
In the kitchen, Riccio, Benton and Wenaas were turning out food as fast as they could. They clearly had a mind-set of quality over quantity, preparing the pasta à la minute, so that when it did arrive it was perfect, both in taste and look.
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The marinated octopus dish, plated in a small round tin and topped with an artfully arranged bunch of greens and freshly foraged edible flowers, was tender yet still elastic, the texture "on point," as described by one of my foodie friends, with a slight acidity balanced by the black olive oil. Served on a bed of small roasted potatoes with a whole loaf of sesame-covered Panuzzo bread, it tasted like something you'd get in the Mediterranean or Italy.
Albacore tuna rillette, served in a small canning jar and made with butter-poached albacore flown in from the Pike Place Market in Seattle, reminded me of the cold Spanish bacalao crostini I'd sampled on a recent visit to Madrid. We spread it on the Panuzzo bread and ate it with a fresh pickle on the side.
Both pastas served during the evening were excellent, and a steal at just $12 a bowl. I hadn't expected to enjoy the vegetarian dish as much as I did, but the dark gray fennel-ash gemelli was the winner of the night for its heavenly garlicky aroma and light coating of creamy sauce, which married beautifully with a tuft of marinated zucchini, pickled leaks, artichoke caponata and coarsely chopped walnuts.
The thick long strands of perfectly al dente thyme bucatini twirled nicely around my fork, so that I could pull the strands high above my pasta bowl. I was reminded of the postcards of the original mangiamaccheroni, or pasta eaters, and as I happily slurped up green strands flavored with a seafood-rich tomato broth of coppa e pomodori sugo, I definitely felt the gioia di vivere, or joy of life, of the pasta eater.