Pizzas and More at the New Alto Pizzeria

Pizza. For me, it's the ultimate comfort food. It's what I crave when I'm down, when I'm ravenous, when I get late-night hunger pangs. The only problem is that it's not exactly the healthiest of dining choices, and with my abundant lack of self control, when I eat pizza, I have this tendency to overindulge.

New entrant Alto Pizzeria, located in the West Ave complex above Ava, offers the perfect solution for my pizza cravings. Smaller than what Houstonians are used to, Alto's are more individually sized pizzas -- about eight to 10 inches in diameter, which means I won't overeat. The crust, not too thick or thin and crispy on the bottom, has a bit of air and spring to it when you take a bite. There's just enough melted cheese and ample pepperoni on the one I order. "I love the crust," my friend, who's originally from the East coast, says. "It's hard to find a New York-style crust like this in Houston."

The pizzas aren't cheap, ringing in at $10 for a simple cheese, oregano, and tomato, and $17 for the Littleneck clams with ricotta, bacon, parsley and chile flakes, but then at Alto, you're paying as much for ambiance as you are for the food. The decor is a blend of just the right amount of hip mixed in with some funky-cool casual. I appreciate the high ceilings and love the floor-to-ceiling windows that line the entire west wall, letting in sunlight during the day and the twinkle of streetlights at night. The wrought iron, low-hanging iron chandeliers set against an exposed brick wall, with neutral-colored grey carpeting and splashes of orange against tiger print upholstery, is fun and fashionable.

The scene is also fun. The youngish waitstaff wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with Alto Pizzeria on the back can be seen zig-zagging across the floor with hot pizzas. On the Saturday night we were there, the airy, spacious dining room was full, and the bar was as well. I spied young couples and families when we arrived around 6:30 p.m., but by the time we rolled out around 9 p.m., a whole slew of pretty twenty-somethings had started making an appearance, made up and decked out to the nines for a night on the town, a great place to people-watch if you're so inclined.

In addition to the pizza, we sampled several other items from the menu, which were for the most part very good. Our starter, the mushrooms stuffed with bolognese, were amply filled, molten hot and topped with fresh grated cheese. A Greek salad of cool, crisp lettuce with feta cheese, cucumber, tomato, olives and a light tangy vinaigrette satisfied our craving for greens. The fettuccine with chicken, leeks, steamed garlic, lemon zest and fontina cream cheese sauce, was a good al dente and garlicky in a good way, if a bit undersalted.

The Schiller Del Grande group seems to have a knack for capturing what's hot now. From the crowded scene on the night I was there, it would appear that Alto, the more casual, less expensive, younger version of hot spot Ava downstairs, is another big hit. On Wednesdays through Saturdays, they even offer a reverse happy hour from 10 p.m. to close, when large pizza slices (about the quarter size of a full pizza) are just $2 each, beers are just $3, and sangria is just $5. I know where I'm going if I get my late-night pizza cravings.

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