Restaurant Reviews

What's in a Name?

It's a shame that many people know Russo's Cafe Anthony more for a legal struggle over its name than for its food. It's a shame, because Russo's place, located just north of the museum district in a row of converted fourplexes, is a splendid neighborhood-style Italian restaurant.

Still, it's understandable that the name flap would have garnered some attention, given that the other party in the disagreement was Tony Vallone, restaurateur to the Sightems. It wasn't that long ago that Vallone expressed concern that Houston's diners would confuse what was then simply called Cafe Anthony with his upscale, French-flavored Anthony's restaurant in Highland Village. So Vallone (whose birth name is Joseph, not Anthony) sued Russo (whose birth name is Anthony) for infringing on his trademark. A judge sided with Vallone, and as a result, Russo tacked his last name onto his business's title. If anyone's confused now, they're simply not paying attention. Of course, if they'd been paying attention before, nobody would have been confused, but the law's the law. Now that the matter has been settled by the name change, sensible people can do what sensible people ought to do: Head for Russo's Cafe Anthony and mangia!

Goodness knows there's plenty worth eating.
The tomato and onion salad is simple and wonderful. The sharp bite of coarse-cut onion rubs perfectly against the taste of thick slices of ripe Roma tomato and a generous fistful of fresh basil. On top is a drizzle of olive oil and fresh-shaved Romano cheese, salt and pepper and a sprinkle of oregano. It's tossed and served. That's it. There's plenty here for two or three people to share, as long as the salad is accompanied by a round of Russo's hearty, crusty Tuscan peasant bread. This is served with one of the specialties of the house, a spicy herbed olive oil perfect for dipping. The combination of flavorings in the oil is a well-guarded family secret, and the bread is truly five-star. An entire round, which is about the size of half a basketball and weighs five pounds, is somehow simultaneously smooth and substantial beneath a crust that's just the right mixture of chewy and crisp. And when it's served warm -- as it has been on most, though not all, occasions I've visited -- it is absolutely ambrosial.

A bowl of roasted garlic soup is a treasure. Its old gold broth is gorgeous with the aromatic but never overpowering flavors of the garlic itself, and it features elusive undertones of caramel. The substantial bowl is festive with the bright reds and greens of Roma tomato and fresh baby spinach; both are added at the last possible instant to ensure crispness and flavor. Together with the splendid Tuscan bread, and perhaps a small salad, the garlic soup makes a fine meal in itself.

Pollo Pavarotti is one of the house specialties. Its nicely tender chicken breast fillets are rolled around paper-thin slices of ham and a generous helping of creamy goat cheese. These are complemented with slices of garden-ripe tomato and lots of fresh black pepper. All sit decoratively atop a generous mound of homemade, cracked-black-pepper fettuccine. My only complaint is that the menu's "light cream sauce" turns out to be pretty heavy -- and on at least one visit, it was applied with a more-than-generous hand. But a liberal sprinkling of fresh, coarse-chopped Italian basil lightens the impact considerably.

Calamari zimmo is properly chewy small squid served whole in a white wine sauce. Squid has a naturally delicate salty-sweet taste that's rather like scallops, but despite that, some diners won't touch the cephalopod unless it's been cut into the familiar rubber band shaped pieces. As a result, calamari zimmo is one of those dishes that divides diners. Either you're going to like it a lot, or you're really going to hate it. As prepared at Russo's, the finger-size squid are perfectly cooked, then tossed with sun-dried tomatoes and chunks of green bell pepper and sprinkled with fresh Italian basil. It's well worth a try.

For those who'd rather not, there are some fine alternative choices. Be warned, though: There's a goodly amount of fresh garlic in both. The pasta della casa, a cappellini dish that's simple in concept -- homemade angel hair pasta, fresh Roma tomatoes, fresh basil snips and pine nuts dressed with a simple olive oil and white wine sauce -- is perfectly okay, though on one visit it did turn up swimming in so much sauce that it was more like a stew than a pasta dish. The presentation notwithstanding, its fresh finishing tastes came through to save the day. Pasta fradiavlo is another perfectly acceptable thready pasta dish. It features shrimp and calamari in a tomato-based sauce that may be a bit too spicy for those with tame taste buds and a little too bland for those who like vivid flavors. That understood and accepted, it's not a bad selection.

Neither is the gnocchi. These potato flour minidumplings are one of the best ways to judge the skill of an Italian kitchen. Unless the chefs are on top of their game, the gnocchi can be like wallpaper paste. At Russo's, they're perfect. Substantial, neither gluey nor stiff, they work well when treated simply, such as being served topped with marinara sauce and fresh basil. They're also splendid in the complex gnocchi Tuscani, where the potato pasta is analogous to the bass in a jazz ensemble. It provides the platform for the showier flavors of fresh spinach, roasted pine nuts, fresh rosemary and white wine garlic sauce.

After the entree -- if anyone has been restrained enough to save room -- there are several desserts worth trying. Chief among them is a substantial wedge of strawberry cheesecake that has large chunks of real berries flavoring the cake, not just in the puree on top. The amaretto flavor in Russo's amaretto-flavored cheesecake is the real thing as well. Fully two inches high, this New York-style textured cake is at the same time dry, creamy-rich and smooth. It's also thoroughly doused with gorgeously rich almond-flavored liqueur and chock-a-block with thin sliced almonds. And it's got a crust made of crushed Oreo cookies. It's a winner.

One of the nicest things about Russo's Cafe Anthony is the unhurried, old country Italian approach to service. It can be chatty. It can be absent-minded, but it's always warm, and you never get the feeling that anybody's looking at the clock and trying to get you moving. Especially at this time of year, both the front patio that lines the street, European style, and the tree-shaded tables on the outdoor deck are nifty places to sit for ages over coffee (sadly banal and often burned) and dessert (rich and wonderful) and watch the always fascinating street life of Montrose passing by.

Russo's Cafe Anthony, 4315 Montrose, 529-8000.

Russo's Cafe Anthony: tomato and onion salad, $5.95; roasted garlic soup, $4.95; calamari zimmo, $7.95; pollo Pavarotti, $10.95; pasta della casa, $10.95; gnocchi Tuscani, $7.95; amaretto-flavored cheesecake, $5.25.

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Joanne Harrison