I didn’t really plan to write a review tonight … it was my birthday after all. Even a busman takes a holiday. Somehow, though, I knew I was going to take a camera in when I handed my keys to the valet. It wasn’t the fact that there was a valet (the Vallones would have a valet if they opened a burger joint). It’s just that Vallone Restaurant Group people, including the valets, all have that “way” about them and I knew that the “touches” were all going to be there. So, I walked into the light and entered Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria, the newest Vallone concept, and immediately felt comfortable in jeans and a sweater.
Perfectly fitting the colorful Montrose neighborhood it’s nestled in, Caffe Bello’s clientele are a cross section of Houston. It’s inexpensive enough to attract the neighborhood “starving artist-types”, trendy enough to comfort the well-heeled Tony’s regulars and best of all… has a menu creative enough to attract serious foodies.
Seated near the colorful and comfortably packed bar area, we grabbed a table where we could watch the indigenous neighborhood characters move up and down the sidewalk outside (That’s a show in itself)… even on a night when most Houstonians were staying home due to cold weather and forecast light snow.
On a menu that includes several artisan Pizzettas, or individual pizzas such as the familiar Margherita and Italian Sausage and Peppers, we chose from offerings that rendered the menu at a California Pizza Kitchen to that of a Pizza Hut. From choices like Baby Alba Truffle; Baby Shrimp & Pancetta Fra Diavolo; and more, we started with a Bresaola, Pear, Tallegio and Italian Truffle Honey Pizzetta. At once savory and sweet, it was perfect to set the palate for either direction we chose to go (which was both ways).
The Picolo (appetizer) selections suggest to you that you might be perfectly happy using it as a tapas menu and just grazing all night. Chicken Wings Salmoriglio with a Mint Vinaigrette; Meatballs with Cheesy Polenta and Pomodoro; Zuppa di Pesce; Calves Liver Veneziana with Cipollini Onions and Balsamico and over a dozen more starters that meld the Vallone family’s traditional southern Italian roots into surprising hybrids relevant in today’s fusionistic dining trends.
We split a Pulcinella salad with Frisee, Arugula, Sweet Basil, Fig, Candied Hazelnuts, and a Parmesan Vinaigrette. The components of this salad were so varied yet supportive, each of the other, it was fun to jump around from ingredient to ingredient.
From the salad, we slid into Cappelletti, little hats filled with Truffle Scented Mascarpone on a fragrant bed of Sage Butter… then to Crispy Baby Artichokes where the star was a Lemon Aioli that had a surprising and gentle bite that made us polish it off with a spoon after we finished the artichokes.
Crispy Baby Artichokes
Entrees are, again, typical of Vallone Italian restaurant selections with no taste left unsatisfied. From seafood to foul to lamb and beef, all are represented and we settled reluctantly on only three to pass around. Lamb Scottadita with Asparagus Pecorino (Charred medium rare unless you choose to ask that it be ruined) was tender American Lamb T-Bones.
We were offered a creamy Shrimp and Calamari Milanese on Saffron Risotto which was an off-the-menu beauty created from always-available ingredients. I suggest that you ask if this is available when you are in for dinner as it is a trademark of a Vallone kitchen to prepare seafood staples for the Mediterranean diet perfectly and two things a Vallone chef wouldn’t dare mess up are calamari and risotto.
Shrimp and Calamari Melanese
A key professional in every Vallone kitchen is the saucier and Caffe Bello’s cocina is no exception. The star of the Roasted Salmon Barolo was its Italian red wine reduction and we would have ordered a “side” of the Sautéed Spinach that accompanied it, if we hadn’t already overdone it with the generous proportions on three shamelessly ordered entrees.
Roasted Salmon Barolo
It’s not over till the future fat lady sings… but with dessert here, it’s definitely going be over! While you can never go wrong with Elizabeth’s Chocolate Chip Cheesecake (requisite in every Vallone restaurant), we finished off the experience with a Berry Tart (fresh Strawberries and Blueberries with a Crème Anglaise and Berry Coulis in a Graham Cracker cup) and a decadent Chocolate OMG! Cake (the gooiest Tuxedo cake you will ever find anywhere).
Chocolate OMG! Cake
Our host for the evening, John Silvestro was the consummate professional and guide through the menu. When asked for suggestions, his empathetic recommendations always delighted us.
Houston, TX 77006