Restaurant Reviews

Pasta Tense

There's something oddly unsettling about Houston's new generation of takeout food emporia. Cross the threshold of Yapa or Ferrari Fresh Pasta, and say hello to deja vu: the same wooden trusses and ductwork slice up the space overhead; the same roasted squabs, mozzarella-layered portobellos and platters of emerald broccoli rabe beckon from identically positioned display cases. The Yapa grilled vegetable array is a dead ringer for the one at Ferrari; the Empire Baking Company loaves at Ferrari echo the ones at Yapa. To the rear lurk similar layouts of wines and multi-flavored sheets of fresh pasta, ready to be cut to order.

Two doppelgänger slogans involving the words "Kitchen Fresh" greet you, along with eagerly -- almost frighteningly -- helpful staffers. Both shops live next door to a Marble Slab Creamery. Both inhabit a Disney World-like new shopping center (Yapa's Neo-Italian-Renaissance, Ferrari's Neo-Mediterranean) anchored by one of those awesome new megamarkets (Yapa's a Randall's Flagship, Ferrari's a Kroger Signature Store).

What's up? Just another food-world divorce, the familiar push-and-pull over philosophy and control that causes many a joint venture to go astray. Ruggles' Bruce Molzan, who recently fled Auntie Pasto's (lately rechristened Eddie Minelli's), knows all about this sort of thing. So does Arturo Boada, now exiled from the menu he shaped at Cabo. The four principals of Yapa and Ferrari are simply the latest to join this awkward minuet. In the beginning, with visions of Dean & DeLuca dancing in their heads, the foursome planned to storm the upscale Houston takeout market together. After that -- on to other cities, the great dream of every modern, red-blooded American food entrepreneur.

Last fall the quartet hired a chef, Culinary Institute of America graduate Scott Miller, to develop a menu. They set about turning Ava and George Ferrari's fresh pasta shop in Second Baptistland, which had been supplying restaurants and retail customers since 1983, into a more rustic version of the projected Yapa look. They tried out their new Yapa dishes on Ferrari's customers and experimented to find just the right wines, just the right olives, just the right cheeses and breads. But at the last minute, with the first Yapa set to open at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, everybody got cold feet.

Ava and George Ferrari opted to stay with their family-owned store, which now had a distinctly Yapa-ized overlay. Yapa partners Walter Athols and Mark Lewis, together with chef Miller, decided to go it alone. They are painfully polite about their differences, but apparently the divorce was not entirely amicable: the Ferrari fresh pasta is rather pointedly missing from the Yapa enterprise (which uses the local Milano as a source instead). Of Miller's recipes, which linger on at Ferrari, Yapa's Athols says carefully, "We didn't feel it appropriate to take them back." It's the food world's equivalent of joint custody.

Whatever the discomforts of the split, Houston is the richer for it. Each establishment has its own strengths and weaknesses; beyond the surface similarities, each has its own personality and food style. Both are useful amenities for their respective neighborhoods -- or for anyone who has company coming for dinner and only 20 minutes to get ready, or who simply wants to eat well at home with a minimum of effort. Now that summer, when turning on the stove seems a criminal act, is upon us, Yapa and Ferrari are especially welcome sources for classy cold suppers.

Yapa in particular delivers some sophisticated goods, painstakingly hand-labeled or packaged in slick Yapa graphics. Within its sleek white refrigerated showcase dwell some of the best rotisseried chickens that money can buy: plump, organically raised squab that have been rubbed under their burnished skins with dizzyingly herbed and garlicked citrus pesto. The flavors penetrate. Every last, lemony-orange trace of pesto demands to be licked off your fingers. Even the breast meat is moist down to the bone, a rarity in a world where chickens are all too often rotisseried into oblivion (more on that later).

Carve up one of these exemplary birds. Add some of Yapa's grilled vegetables: skinny slabs of zucchini and yellow squash and eggplant, nicely striped and charred tasting, boosted by a lively balsamic vinegar marinade. Color? A couple of the lush tomato wheels from the grilled vegetable assortment and a crisp green vegetable, perhaps broccoli tossed with sesame, a tinge of soy and tendrils of lemon zest. Pour a glass of chilled white wine direct from Yapa's cold case. Sit on your terrace, or under your fig tree. Consider the possibility that summer in the tropics isn't half bad.

Much of Yapa's appeal springs from its everything-under-one-roof convenience. There, in one spot, are assembled the wares the dedicated foodie would otherwise have to chase around town acquiring: immaculate Empire bread loaves; a pre-chilled quart of San Pellegrino; Dolce & Freddo sorbets; a glistening, puckery lemon tart or a trembly blackberry creme brulee from perfectionist Marilyn Descours. They're not cheap, but time is money. Feel like starting out with some of Paula Lambert's ethereal fresh mozzarella, direct from Dallas? You've got it. Need some boutique baby greens for a salad? Those too, albeit in a state that may approach limpness toward day's end. There are even interesting Yapa salad dressings in theatrical high-necked bottles; unfortunately those spectacular, narrow necks make it hard to pour the punchy sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

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Alison Cook