Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cannelloni (at Sweet Temptation and Trattoria Lisina)

"while most people understand that Tex-Mex and so-called 'Interior Mexican' are two different things, the perceived differences between Italian-American cuisine and authentic Italian cuisine are far fuzzier, because you almost never see the latter in America."

Robin Goldstein, Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide

Sweet Temptation's cannelloni

Sweet Temptation is a new, cute (BYOB!) Italian restaurant near the Heights. It is on Airline across from Teotihuacan. Reader comments on b4-u-eat say that the owner-chef is related to restaurant owners in Italy and that he has cooked in some well-known Houston Italian restaurants.

When I stopped in last week for lunch, I was the only customer. "What's best?" I asked the waitress.

"Our cannelloni special is to die for" she responded.

I hadn't had cannelloni since I stopped buying microwave TV dinners -- about 18 years ago. But I decided to try it anyway.

Two squares of fresh lasagna pasta were rolled around a filling of chicken and ricotta cheese. These were topped with a classic tomato basil sauce.

I was most impressed with the fresh pasta. It was toothsome and chewy, not crispy nor over-baked. The flavor in the dish was provided, not by the bland ricotta filling, but by the bright and tangy tomato sauce. The fresh basil provided aromatic notes.

I enjoyed my lunch. And I left the restaurant pondering cannelloni.

Why cannelloni makes me suspicious

Something about cannelloni strikes me as inauthentic. It is served at most Carrabba's and Macaroni Grills. Yet I have not seen it on the menu at Da Marco or Arcodoro. More importantly, I have eaten in dozens of restaurants in Italy. I have never seen cannelloni on an Italian menu.

Cannelloni has all the ingredients of inauthentic American Italian food. Pasta. Cheese. Tomato sauce. These classic American-Italian ingredients define the cannelloni.

Plus, it looks just like an enchillada. Ultimately, Americans will turn any food into a wrap.

Yet the cannelloni really is authentic. A restaurant in the tourist town of Sorrento claims to have invented the cannelloni at the beginning of the 20th Century. The restaurant's photos of the cannelloni look a lot like the cannelloni served in Texas.

Cannelloni may look like Americanized Italian food, but now I know it comes from Italy.

Cannelloni Lisina

As a twist of fate, I encountered a second cannelloni in the same week.

I found myself last weekend with a large group in Driftwood, Texas. Someone suggested we eat lunch in a trattoria that had been built in a middle of a vineyard. I had visions of a Tuscan outpost serving authentic Italian food.

When we walked in to this small-town trattoria, I was shocked. It looked just like a Maccaroni Grill, but was twice as large. It was nearly full. And it was owned by the Mandolas.

Trattoria Lisina sits in the middle of the Mandolas' winery. On Saturday afternoon, it was packed with more customers than people who live in Driftwood. This was an extremely successful, crowd-pleasing operation.

Of course, I had to order their specialty pasta -- Cannelloni Lisina.

The Mandolas' cannelloni had all the basic cannelloni elements. But the filling had much less ricotta and much more ground meat -- chicken, veal, and pork. On top was not just tomato sauce, but also a creamy bechamel.

Compared to Sweet Temptation, Lisina's cannelloni was much meatier and creamier. (The Mandolas know what Texans like). But the pasta was a little too baked and did not have that fresh-pasta texture of the pasta at Sweet Temptation. The dish at Sweet Temptation had been much lighter, and did not cause me to fall asleep. Lisina's cannelloni caused an afternoon nap - during a business meeting.

Authentic Italian food?

Authenticity may be overrated. But I can't help thinking about it. The cannelloni at both Texas restaurants -- particularly Sweet Temptation -- looks like the cannelloni on the website of the restaurant in Sorrento, Italy. So they must be at least somewhat authentic.

Still, I would be willing to bet that cannelloni is much less popular in Italy than in Texas.


Anonymous said...

This is a bit off from your discussion, but I don't think Robin Goldstein is accurate in her statement.

I think people have a perceived notion from hearing the word "Tex-Mex", but few (I'd say most Texans I know) could actually explain the difference.

anonymouseater said...

Chris - Thanks. Your comment isn't off topic. It goes to the heart of it.

I agree that most Americans, and maybe even most Texans, may not know the difference between Tex-Mex and interior Mexican. But I suspect that most Houston foodies could tell you that you can get interior food at Pico's, Merida, and Otilia's, but you only get Tex-Mex at Spanish Village and Tony's.

In contrast, I wonder whether many Houston foodies know that some of our most popular and most expensive Italian restaurants are not very authentic.

By the way, Robin is a guy, with facial hair.

Unknown said...

MMMmmm this dish looks so "delish"! i love pasta so anything with pasta grabs my attention fast. Thanks for sharing.

HoustonWok said...

You know I love pasta! But I have yet to find a close to authentic italian restaurant in Houston. Any recommendations? or should I Faa GET ABOUT IT?

anonymouseater said...

Da Marco (very pricey)

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca (Da Marco's cheaper stepchild pizzeria)

Bice (which closed a few weeks ago)

fantasy football rings said...

Is this bakes after cheddar is added?
Looks like an interesting recipe.

wedding favor said...

Thanks for sharing this recipe out and for the discussion you have with Tex-Mex and the foodies in some Mexican areas.

Unknown said...

Mmm~ Cannelloni, one of my favorite italian food. It has been a while since I last ate good food at Florida. Dining on a fine restaurant was my usual activity whenever its payday or when there is a celebration. Growing up in a family of foodies, I can't help but to sink my teeth on some delicious food.