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Two Years After Opening, Papa Mio Continues to Excel

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Two years ago, a takeout supper from Papa Mio proved very good. Last week, dinner was absolutely terrific.

Affordable, high-quality "red sauce" Italian food can be tricky to find in Houston, where most Italian restaurants tend to be higher-end and attend to regional or niche specialties. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and hats off to Giacomo's Cibe e Vino and Vinoteca Poscol.

But sometimes you just want some antipasti and noodles with a good gravy. Enter Papa Mio, a quiet restaurant off of South Shephard that has amassed a devoted patronage for its flavorful pasta classics and its happy hour, during which all drinks come with a free whole pizza. Yes, really.

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On any given night, the dining room will be home to couples of all ages and often one very large, loud group of family and/or friends--why, perhaps, the restaurant leaves a 12-person plus table set up at the center of the upper tier of the seating area. Don't sniff at their smiles and boisterous laughter until you have some of what they're having.

Standout appetizers at Papa Mio include the crispy, well-battered calamari and the potato and cheese croquettes, both of which are heavy enough to off-set a lighter entree. More substantial and more diverse in taste and texture, however, is the voluminous antipasti platter loaded with juicy discs of mozzarella, roasted peppers, zucchini, and onions, ham, salami, olives, and served with Italian bread. Half the fun of this starter is constructing various sandwiches from the ingredients on offer with the pre-buttered toast. Although an antipasti plate such as this is intended to whet the appetite, it can easily overtake your hunger and why not let it?

Because then you won't be nearly as excited to engage in a similarly creative culinary exercise, the "create-your-own pasta" option. This menu item has the potential to yield disastrous results, but somehow the ingredients on offer, specially the handmade pasta and wonderful sauces, prevent you from inadvertently stumbling onto an unsatisfying combination. In fact, every pattern noodles, sauce, protein, vegetable I've sampled has been very, though special accolades go (to me because I thought of it!) the chef for the earthy mushroom pesto (thick with basil, 'shrooms, and cream) that is the perfect lubrication for tender, spongy gnocchi and a handful of roasted eggplant slices.

Should you want to share this food love with more than just a few and in the comfort of your own home, Papa Mio also offers inexpensive catering in the form of large trays of steaming classics such as cannelloni, manicotti, lasagna, etc. and stuffed pasta such as lobster ravioli and chicken and sausage mezzaluna. Wear a bib, fire up Season 5 of The Sopranos, and dig in.

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