Restaurant Reviews

Sweet Home Italian

The soul of a foodie who's jaded from too much exposure to all that's hipper-than-thou in today's restaurant scene might well find respite in the welcome presented by the two live oak trees flanking the dirt driveway into Tutto Bene's parking lot, and in the lonely card table stationed at the end of the sidewalk next to the street, with a placard bearing the restaurant's name and a single candle burning for the benefit of E whom? I looked around in vain for a valet parker or a security guard. Apparently, the candle is for the benefit of arriving guests. Inside, the cluttered entryway and slightly sloping floor of the old ranch-style house, plus the silver-haired neighbor cum hostess, also offer rest for the weary. Go to the left, and you'll be seated on the carpeted "platform" ("That sounds so exalted," said a friend of mine). To the right is the airier, wood-floored half of the restaurant. See if this room doesn't meet your definition of the word "trattoria." High concept design it isn't. But high-grade comfort? Certainly.

That high comfort level carries over to much of Tutto Bene's food. Consider, for example, the appetizers: with the help of an ambitious busboy who couldn't refrain from offering us some tips, my group went for the toasted ravioli. Battered and swathed in bread crumbs, then dunked in a hot oil bath, these little beige flattened pillows tucked full of an appropriately grainy cheese filling aren't trendy or fancy. They are, though, damn satisfying. They're also a great excuse to sample with abandon the al'amatriciana sauce. Tutto Bene's interpretation of this meatless red sauce, whose origin is Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, is emphatic with peppers. There's no surprise that in Houston, where diners are accustomed to foods muscled up with lots of spice, this sauce has found a following. As a test of our busboy's taste, we also tried the baked polenta slices. He had predicted we would prefer the ravioli; he was right. There was nothing about these firm little fingers of corn batter, with their dusting of Parmesan and their whisper of onion flavor, that offended, but there was nothing that thrilled, either. Except, possibly, the additional venue they provided for consuming more of that deeply red, deeply robust al'amatriciana sauce.

That effusion of red sauce was a nice preparation for our chicken tetrazzini entree: skinless, boneless chicken chunks, spaghetti noodles (no other kind of pasta would dare be found in this classic mom-style dish) and lots of cream. What is it about a casserole topped with bread crumbs that automatically brings back welcome memories of being a child? In an era of over-gilded, precious menus, the simplicity of this type of food is a spiritual tonic.

Such a tonic attests to Tutto Bene's origins as the creation not of a professional restaurateur, but of a seasoned diner who saw a hole in the restaurant scene that he thought needed filling. It helped that this gourmand knew how to cook.

In 1987, when Andrew Rebori moved to Houston, he found himself resenting the fact that some of the most expensive restaurants around were Italian. A native of Rome who had spent time as an adult in New York and Chicago, he was familiar with neighborhood Italian places that catered to diners who wanted good, cheap meals; it was the sort of establishment, he decided, that he'd like to run as well as eat at. So, with a partner, then-international banker Rebori opened an Italian restaurant near Hobby Airport called Figaro's in 1988. It had only a short life. After his partner bailed out, and after he lost his job with a Saudi-owned bank and realized that career opportunities in banking were drying up, Rebori succumbed to the career that seemed his fate, found a neighborhood jointsy location and opened Tutto Bene, an "Italian Family Restaurant."

Rebori's clearly a born host: gregarious, big-voiced, keen to please, passionate about food. He's also like a favorite uncle, albeit one with a strange sense of humor. For example, at the top of the list of daily specials that's inserted in the menu, Rebori includes notice of tributes he's dreamt up; a recent one was National Recyclable Roadkill Appreciation Day. When I read that, I tried to refrain from wondering what the implications would be for my lunch.

Rebori's choice of setting, and his menu, may not abound in sophistication, but it cannot be said that his palate or skills in the kitchen are unrefined. While usually simple and hearty, Tutto Bene's food displays a craftsmanlike consistency: I was never left wondering at the presence of a certain ingredient -- nor at the lack of one, for that matter. While a friend lamented the lack of cream in the Bolognese sauce he ordered on his beef tortellini, I actually preferred the unadorned sturdiness presented by the chunks of beef, pancetta and Italian sausage in their barely winy infusion. Rebori's version is in line with acceptable standards of this classic sauce, even though more cream would have been authentic, too. A note: authenticity isn't everything. Does it look, smell and taste good? These are more important issues. If Rebori had been too busy adhering to the rules of authenticity, we might have missed out on the extra dash of cayenne that adds swagger to that al'amatriciana sauce.

Said sauce shows up in the lasagna al'amatriciana (it's worth asking for if it's not on the menu when you visit). Big rounds of sweetish Italian sausage compete with the smoky-spicy sauce for your taste buds' attention. Which wins? Both. I'm sure there were cheeses and pasta in there, too, but they were merely supporting players.

Despite its adherence to homely virtues, food snobs need not avoid Tutto Bene. When required, the restaurant can deliver sophistication and delicacy. The ziti andrea, for example -- pasta pipelets modestly tossed with fleshy bites of seared salmon, toothy sun-dried tomatoes, sunny olive oil and sharp Parmesan -- is a convincing example of an understated, spa-simple pasta dish. The Canadian mussels -- steamed to memorable tenderness in their shells and served in a puddle of garlicky lobster bisque (the absence of cream in the bisque is noteworthy and, here, highly apropos) -- are also a model of refinement and restraint. There is an artfulness to how these bivalves appear casually jumbled on their plate.

The link between Tutto Bene's sophistication and hominess may well be found in the special of stuffed pork loin. Wrapped around a nutty and herby stuffing of bread crumbs and Italian sausage, it comes anointed with a pomegranate sauce that adds reserved sweetness. A vegetable risotto was yummily sticky, and sugar snap peas were the perfect choice for the requisite green vegetable. "Is this the sort of meal Italian families get served for Sunday dinner?" I wondered enviously.

If they end their meal with Tutto Bene's dessert offerings, though, I don't envy them. Dessert here is a mild-mannered event. Yes, everything is fresh and well-prepared, but nothing bowls me over. Where is the dessert equivalent of that gutsy al'amatriciana sauce, I wonder? Where is the unadulteratedly chocolate selection?

Houston's restaurant scene has changed, and changed again, since Andrew Rebori first surveyed the landscape in 1987. Modest Italian places aren't as rare as they once were. Still, when upscale Italian establishments continue to crop up on what seems like a daily basis, there's more room than ever for an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood trattoria. At Tutto Bene, the sense that you're hanging out in a neighbor's home is sometimes abetted by a too loud duet of accordion player and opera singer, who appear on certain nights and whose repertoire seems to consist primarily of Broadway tunes. But if you didn't have to put up with eccentricities, it wouldn't really feel like home, would it?

Tutto Bene, 4618 Feagan, 864-0209.

Tutto Bene: toasted ravioli, $3.95; lasagna al'amatriciana, $7.99; stuffed pork loin, $12.99; Canadian mussels $4.99 (for 12 or so) or $9.99 (for 20 or so).

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Kelley Blewster