Organized by frequent EOW commenter, foodie, tweeter extraordinaire and website developer who counts the Vallone enterprise as one of his clients, Albert Nurick (aka @htownchowdown) gathered lots of tweet-happy, food-loving Houstonians for a meal at Caffe Bello last night. The conversation flowed between some people who had only interacted with one another virtually, until now. The smooth transition between sharing 140-character bursts of information and real-life interaction proved that Twitter does, indeed, help create lasting friendships and enhance the Houston culinary scene.
We started out with Vallone Nero D'Avola, a crisp, Italian white with lots of mineral notes and a very clean finish, and no, the name is not a coincidence. Along with his restaurant empire, Vallone has wines and olive oil from Italy stamped with his name - and the two of those I tried were both superior.
Appetizers were a selection of pizzetas, which, as we expected after reading Katharine Shilcutt's review, were one of the stars of the meal. The crust was perfectly thin and crisp, with a combination of toppings that work in harmony with one another. My particular favorites were the traditional Margherita and one with sweet gorgonzola and mushrooms. I have to think that Marco Wiles down the road at Dolce Vita has got to be nibbling his fingernails to nubs watching the evolution of his new neighbor.
The first course was a combination of pappardelle al Telefono, or "Italian junk food," and rigatoni Bolognese. The orange sauce coating the thick ribbons of perfectly al dente pappardelle was rich, warming and creamy; once again I agreed with Katharine's review. Made with Burrata and San Marzano tomatoes, the balance of decadence with the sweet and tangy tomatoes made for a simple, flavorful pasta. The rigatoni Bolognese was equally al dente, with a traditional red meat sauce that made me wonder if the kitchen staff, headed by Michael Dei Maggi, had suddenly transformed into an old Italian grandmother.
We dug in to the second course of Burrata with shiitake, butternut squash and balsamic caviar alongside grani misti, described as "a mélange of multi-grains, hydro-watercress, lemon emulsion." I loved the grani misti, a mellow, textural mixed grain salad. The watercress provided a nice punch to the chewy grains, and the touch of lemon emulsion was a refreshing way to dress the potentially boring dish. The yin to the grani misti's yang, the Burata was incredibly intense, heavy and tangy and also a bit cumbersome to eat. It was deliciously deep in flavor, but it was difficult to get a bite with all the elements at once.
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The seafood dishes were next - a roasted red snapper atop a tomato-shrimp ragu and mussels with fennel, balsamic and orange. The snapper proved the most boring dish of the evening. It wasn't bad, it wasn't good, it was just there, asking to be eaten. The ragu was delicious, but paled in comparison with the mussels. The most flavorful and unexpected of the marathon feast were these delicate shellfish, which transcended even those I used to crave from the now-closed Café Montrose. I'm not usually a fan of fennel, but in the mix with the orange and balsamic it proved a fresh complement to savory mussels.
Then, plopped down in front of me was a giant lamb shank over a bed of creamy, three-cheese polenta. I was able to take three bites of tender, literally fall-off-the-bone meat and one of the creamy, but not gluey polenta. The opulent, traditional dish was one of the top contenders for best of the evening, but my stomach had no room. On a cold day, if Houston ever gets one, I will revisit this heavy, warming, comfort dish topped with a traditional mirepoix.
Lastly, and briefly, because it's not worth writing about, the dessert was a monumental disappointment, proving Katharine right again. Besides the fact that everyone was feeling fatter than a tick on a fat dog's back, the mixed berry tart was boring with an overly thick crust. And I don't like cheesecake, which was the other offering. I snatched a small cannoli from the tray brought to the table and called it a night.
Aside from the hopeless dessert and a few small missteps, it looks like Caffe Bello is already a heavy-hitter in the Montrose dining world. Judging the efforts put forth by Vallone's skateboarding son, Jeff, sharing a meal with a bunch of Houston's food-loving tweeters, they're out to show the social media world that they are here to stay.