A few weeks ago I listed some cuisines that are missing in Houston. Some of you added your complaints about our Italian-food scene. You said we don't have enough:
1 - authentic regional Italian restaurants; and
2 - good inexpensive Italian food.
Then Nord responded that we should try Fratelli's - a restaurant I had never heard of. So last Friday night, I loaded up the family and drove outside the Loop to see what I had been missing.
An inauspicious start
If atmosphere matters, you may not like Fratelli's.
It is in a depressing strip center on 290 near 34th. Outside are planters with herbs -- a good sign. But inside, the decor is equally depressing. The walls are scattered with tacky prints, some that are not hung straight.
On a Friday night, at peak hour, the restaurant was about 1/4 full. About half of the crowd was elderly. My wife gave me a blow-by-blow account as two old guys across from her wiped up butter from a bowl with their fingers, then greedily licked them.
Fortunately, the service was very friendly. A nice older lady greeted us at the door. Our young waiter seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the food.
The wine list was short, but had some good Italian wines. They did not have the wine we ordered, so the owner upsold us a "better" bottle -- $15 more expensive.
Perhaps Fratelli's needed to make up for the cheap food prices. Most pizzas and pasta dishes are around $10. Entrees with chicken and veal run around $14.
Good food overcomes all complaints
Most of Fratelli's menu focuses on the food of Emilia-Romagna. Many foodies think this region, just north east of Tuscany, is the best region for Italian food. It is known for handmade pasta, parmigiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and Bolognese sauce.
My daughter started out with a dish that is not a specialty of Emilia-Romagna -- pizza.
This Neptune pizza was loaded with anchovies and squid, plus a few shrimp and generous amounts of basil. The best part of the pizza was the crust -- a cracker-thin crust like most pizzas served in Italy.
Behind Dolce Vita, this might be the best, most authentic pizza in Houston.
We also started with spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce.
The potato/spinach dumplings were large, handmade, irregular balls -- completely different from the elegant light pillows at Ristorante Cavour. These gnocchi taste more like you would expect from someone's home kitchen, rather than a professional chef. Yet that is not a complaint.
The sauce was thick, cheesy, and pungent, much like I remember an gorgonzola gnocchi dish in Rome.
Again, this may not be the best gnocchi in Houston. But it is authentic and awfully good -- especially for $6.95.
A final surprise was Saltimbocca alla Romana.
Thin strips of veal were sauteed and rolled with prosciutto and sage, resting on a very light bed of butter sauce. The dominant flavor was the fresh sage. Most Houston Italian restaurants are too shy to use this much fresh herb.
Even the sauteed green beans on the side were full of flavor -- something I have not come to expect from most Houston Italian restaurants.
A few other dishes were merely good -- a Cesari salad (not an Italian dish, despite its name) and a chocolate torte that tasted more of fruit than chocolate. We learned that it is better to stick to Fratelli's regional specialties.
Fratelli's deserves more attention. Its food may not be in the same league as Da Marco's, Dolce Vita, Ristorante Cavour, or Arcodoro. But it's better than at least 200 other Italian restaurants in Houston. And it may be Houston's best Italian food value.