Restaurant Reviews

Pasta Imperfect

In a well-ordered universe, Angelina's would be a terrific place to eat. Young Johnny Butera's new Bellaire Boulevard pasta bar is predicated on a great idea: mix-and-match noodles and sauces at moderate prices, semi-self-served up in a chipper glass-and-metal box. Salads included. Homemade cakes. Designer coffees. Bottles of wine at grocery store prices. Infant grapevines clambering up a sleek, industrial arbor and wire-enclosed terrace.

But this is not a well-ordered universe, as anyone who's been watching TV lately may have divined. B does not necessarily follow A. And the smart ideas on Angelina's meticulously chalked menu, with its 16 sauces and nine pasta shapes and 144 possible permutations of same, do not necessarily translate into smart fun on your table. It's almost as if the menu creator has vanished, leaving such entertaining notions as zucchini-and-garlic or lentil-and-tomato sauces in the care of a wobbly, uncertain kitchen.

Time may help. Butera -- son of the late John Butera of grocery store and deli fame -- has yet to smooth the glitches from his fledgling service system, and the addition of one strong hand behind the open kitchen's stoves could smooth the food as well. Some of it is pleasant enough: corkscrewed spirelli with grilled vegetables, for instance, in which sweet, potent cloves of roasted garlic and a salty punctuation of goat cheese lent dash to small cubes of eggplant, squash and carrots. But why was that lake of green-gold oil lurking in the shallow pasta bowl? Angelina's makes much ado about sauteing to order with extra virgin olive and canola oils; yet no matter how good the quality, too much oil can throw a dish out of whack.

Other pastas fall prey to other ills. Bowtied farfalle alfredo with Italian bacon, tomatoes and basil -- "D-3" according to Angelina's

bingo-esque ordering ritual -- arrived weary and congealed, its flabby bits of pancetta desperately seeking crispness. Too bad, because the alfredo treatment, buff-colored parmesan cling rather than a creamy ooze, was blessedly restrained. Maybe the plain alfredo with lemon zest would be a better bet.

Bowtie pasta with that interesting-sounding zucchini sauce proved to be a bland bore: its squash circles wildly overbrowned (as in beyond caramel-ized); its garlic, basil, provolone cheese and blah broth of a sauce adding curiously little. Capellini diablo with shrimp suffered from the opposite syndrome, its aggressive current of red pepper oddly detached from its smooth, almost baby-foody marinara base. Nor were the shrimp -- smallish, iodiney, a tad overcooked -- cause for rejoicing.

Linguini with shrimp, roasted peanuts and sundried tomato was far more agreeable. The peanuts contributed a whimsical Indonesian overtone; the sundried tomatoes gave the marinara an earthy tang. Even the shrimp seemed friendlier in this context. And linguine with fresh clams was a brash surprise: bright with lemon and white wine, zinging with red pepper, not at all the usual tame specimen. Okay, I wish they'd throw in a few whole clams as a good-faith gesture; that top-of-the-line $9.60 price tag (most pastas here are $6 to $7) seems to demand more than chopped clams accessorized with a trio of empty, showpiece clamshells.

In all cases, the noodles involved are high-caliber dried pasta cooked suitably al dente. The staff is quick to suggest which shape goes best with which sauce, an acknowledgment that, where sauces are concerned, not all pastas are created equal. One unspoken qualifier to Angelina's mix-and-match concept is that short, stubby noodles -- penne, farfalle, spirelli, shells and tubetti -- generally grab hold of chunkier sauces more effectively and stand up to bigger flavors.

It's all subjective, of course, which makes Angelina's complete freedom of choice so American. (I can almost hear the pasta purists arguing that a mix-and-match kitchen abdicates its responsibility to present its noodles in their most platonic state.) Whichever pasta you choose here, though, you'll probably end up with at least one representative of another species: the varieties seem to migrate between bowls according to mysterious principles of their own, so that a cylinder of penne or a strand of spaghetti may suddenly surface among a herd of farfalle.

Acquiring an Angelina's meal entails scoping out the blackboard menu; ordering from the cashier behind the great-looking varnished concrete and corrugated aluminum bar; and paying on the spot, which means anyone using plastic must know in advance every last item they'll want or suffer the aggravation of multiple transactions. (This is a growing problem in Houston's upscale self-serve joints; witness the Empire Cafe, for example.)

After you pick one of the restaurant's vividly hand-painted tables, a staffer bearing salads furnishes you with a propped-up table number. You fetch your own utensils and napkins from an art-directed steel rack fitted out with striped crockery and a basket holding slices of wonderfully sturdy, crusty bread. Ice and handsome, weighty carafes of water inhabit the same corner.

Thus supplied, you await your waiter-borne pasta, desserts and miscellaneous side dishes. That's the theory, anyway. In practice, things are dicier. After a month, Angelina's staff still seems confused about who should do what when. Duplicate salads may appear. The crucial table number may not be assigned. Pesto bread may not arrive on schedule. A pre-ordered dessert may be temporarily mislaid, or the wrong one may show up. Dishes may linger uncleared during coffee and dessert. Who's in charge here? On two different visits, Johnny Butera, who seems a pleasant and reasonably earnest young man, did not appear to be keeping a vigilant, corrective eye on his dining room, or on the ways in which his system was going awry.

Nobody was keeping a vigilant eye on our ricotta-and-tomato pizza, either. It arrived at the table in a woefully incinerated state, blackened underneath and desiccated on top, a good, simple idea gone wrong. Pesto bread smeared with a thick green sludge of herb sauce was not exactly a model of dewiness. But the house salads that come with all pastas fared better: blessed with a peppery, faintly sweet vinaigrette and a flurry of slivered almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds, they're an encouraging try that just misses coming together (the greens could be a bit fresher and more varied, and the deep salad bowls a bit more accessible).

Desserts? They look swell in their countertop cases. Alas, house-made cannoli stuffed with sweetened ricotta wore a stale, soggy pastry wrapper and tasted positively inert. Deep-dark chocolate fudge cake that may have been fabulous in its infancy was done in by age and, I suspect, the rigors of refrigeration. Walnutty Italian cream cake, the best of the lot, was on the dry side, with none of the voluptuousness one wants in this particular dessert. Better to stick with a caffe Angelina, a lovely froth of creamy iced espresso with the merest hint of sweetness.

Bottom line: while no single dish I've sampled here seems worth a drive (unlike rival pasta bar Semolina, with its compelling pad Thai), Angelina's is a definite amenity for people in its West U.-Bellaire vicinity. It's casual. It's priced right. It's carbo-heavy. Its redo of the former Wes' Hot Dogs location is cheery and clean-lined. It has a certain promise that may yet be realized. It even has a view: across the street, glorious in the dusk: the neon tower of the erstwhile Bellaire Theater that beckons neighborhood kiddies into a Discovery Zone. And next door, in one of those too, too perfect bits of symmetry, stands the mega-Seekers health food grocery that recently bought out the hallowed Southhampton neighborhood store of one Johnny Butera.

Angelina's, 4057 Bellaire Blvd., 661-0025.

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Alison Cook