Rest of the Best 2013: Houston's Top Ten Pasta Dishes

Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners have been announced, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we'll be rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!

For me, as I suspect it is for many, pasta is the ultimate comfort food. My family isn't Italian, but I grew up eating a lot of pasta. On birthdays, it was fettuccine alfredo. For special events, it was linguine with shrimp scampi. On any given week night, it might be a mixture of roasted veggies and chicken with something imperfect from our pasta extruder, but it was always delicious and filling.

The first dish I ever learned to make was pasta alla puttanesca, and it's still what I make the best, and what I get requests for when I'm home. Trips to Italy opened my eyes to a whole new world of utterly simple but incredibly flavorful pasta dishes and unique ways to incorporate various vegetables and proteins into my pappardelle or conchigliette.

Of course, pasta isn't only Italian anymore. Pasta (not to be confused with Asian noodles) has found its way into Jewish, French, Cajun, American and numerous other cuisines. I'll argue that Italian is still the best, but there's no denying that pasta is perfect in just about any form. Here are some of the most perfect plates of pasta in Houston.

10. Kenny & Ziggy's I know, I know. You're thinking I'm crazy. A list of the best pasta -- arguably the national food of Italy -- and the first place she mentions is a New York-style Jewish deli?! Yes, and here's why: Kasha varnishkes. At Kenny & Ziggy's the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish is prepared just as it would be back in the old country. The ultimate soothing combination of buckwheat groats, bowtie pasta, eggs, chicken stock, onions and mushrooms was even featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network (for whatever that's worth). But if you don't trust Guy Fieri, trust me: This hearty, grain-heavy dish is geshmak!

9. Bayou City Seafood & Pasta As a resident of the Bayou City, I would be remiss to create a list of the best pastas without a tip of the hat to the bayou itself, and all of the fresh seafood that comes from it. At Bayou City Seafood & Pasta, the traditional Italian dish gets a Cajun makeover, thanks to some mudbugs and a bit of spice. During crawfish season, the best pasta on the menu is the Pasta Lafayette, a simple dish of fettuccine or angel hair with sautéed crawfish. Order it "Justice style," which will get you a thick topping of spicy diablo sauce and creamy alfredo sauce.

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8. Paulie's Paulie's is a Houston institution, and one dinner there will tell you why: consistent, reliable service; a large, unfussy menu; and handmade pasta in giant portions. Honestly, I can't pick a favorite pasta at Paulie's. Both the canestri alla funghi, with crimini and shiitake mushrooms in a light sage cream sauce, and the bucatini amatriciana, with smoked bacon (in lieu of the traditional guanciale), fire-roasted cherry tomatoes, garlic and chili flakes, are wonderful, and a large portion is more than enough for two people to share.

7. Tony's Of course the father of Italian food in Houston has a place on the list of best pasta. The handmade ribbons of pappardelle or fettuccine have the ideal elasticity, and the sauces are simple, yet full of flavor. Though I'm a sucker for Tony's pillowy pansoti filled with squash and bathed in a sage essence cream, the best pasta on Tony's menu is so special that it's around for a limited time only every year. During burgundy truffle season (fall through early winter), Tony's offers tagliarini in a cream sauce with truffles gingerly shaved over the dish right at the table. It's almost otherworldly in its decadence.

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6. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino Though I can seldom resist a good mushroom pasta (don't worry, there will be more later), Giacomo's gnocchi di funghi is the second-best pasta dish on the menu. The best is the tagliatelle alla bolognese, a traditional meat sauce that's often imitated and rarely done right. Giacomo's gets it, though: It should be more meaty than tomato-y, more ragù than marinara. At Giacomo's, the bolognese sauce still tastes of the long-simmered carrots, onions and tomato paste, but the beef is the true star of the show.

5. Da Marco And in case Tony's truffle pasta wasn't enough truffle for you, try Da Marco's. It's quite similar, but at Da Marco's you'll pay twice as much money and get twice as much pasta and truffle. In the winter, owner Marco Wiles goes to Alba himself to gather the white truffles that are later served at Da Marco (note: Tony's is currently serving burgundy truffles). The moment when the truffle is shaved over your pasta and the scent of earth and mushrooms and something almost garlic-like in its piquancy fills your nostrils is something that, as Robb Walsh noted, every lover of food should experience at least once in his or her life.

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4. Provisions Ah, the cresta de gallo pasta. Named for its shape, which resembles a rooster comb, the cresta de gallo at Provisions is by far the best pasta dish on a menu of really good dishes. The curly pasta swims in a bowl of wild hen of the woods mushroom cream sauce with roasted yeast, which makes it light and frothy, rather than heavy. Parmesan brings out the crisp funk of the mushrooms, while red pepper flakes add a spicy punch that breaks through the cream sauce every few bites. This dish may just make you reconsider altogether what pasta should be.

3. Étoile When I think pasta, I don't usually think French restaurant, but chef Philippe Verpiand at Étoile makes one of the most divine, melt-in-your-mouth pasta dishes in town. The raviolis de champignon (told you I love mushrooms) are filled with the smoothest mushroom purée and bathed in a lightly whipped sauce of port wine, truffle oil and aged Parmesan, then topped with thin wisps of cheese and finely sliced chives. The frothy sauce is almost impossibly light, and the handmade pasta perfectly chewy.

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2. Ciao Bello I consider Ciao Bello to be the king of pasta in Houston. All of the pasta is handmade from the same imported flour and Italian water that makes the pasta at Tony's so delectable, but it's the slightly less formal atmosphere at Ciao Bello that makes me feel like I'm eating at an Italian trattoria. The doppio ravioli is one of the most creative pastas that (sometimes) finds its way to the menu here. The double-pocketed ravioli filled with puréed red and yellow beets and topped with olive oil, fried sage, roasted chestnuts and a light pan sauce is just a special for now. But I'd be surprised if it doesn't soon become a regular menu item.

1. Coppa Ristorante Italiano If pasta is your thing, chef Brandi Key should be your new best friend. Under her watch, the kitchens at both Coppa Ristorante and Coppa Osteria turn out incredible upscale takes on Italian classics with flair -- like the porcini-flavored pappardelle with slightly sweet braised brisket sugo or the supremely delicate house-made gnocchi, swimming in a rich broth with notes of fresh sage and dollops of ricotta. It's the bright, yolk-topped spaghetti carbonara with wisps of pink salami scattered throughout that brings crowds to each restaurant, though. It's by no means traditional carbonara, but the mixture of salami, Parmesan, parsley, pepper and a single egg topped with pour-it-yourself Parmesan cream sauce is so good I bet the Romans wish they'd thought of it.

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