Mangola’s Italian Restaurant

Sometimes things happen to take you back to the past a bit.  Driving on the Southwest Freeway in Houston, we glanced over and saw Mangola’s on the feeder street. We used to eat at Mangola’s Italian restaurant years ago, and went for one thing and one thing alone.  Mussels in white wine sauce. There were other things on the menu, of course, but I don’t remember noticing them. Served in a big cast iron kettle between us, we were always well-fed and seemed to take some home with us.  I remember Mangola’s burning down, several years ago, but this was how I found that they had reopened some time ago.

Well, it’s a different experience now.  Not bad, mind you, but different.  It used to have the feel of a small Mulberry Street Italian restaurant in Little Italy… but now seems larger and more open since the renovation.  At any rate, we stopped in with our Living Social certificate and were treated like big tipping regulars.  New and shiny with white table cloths… but no fuss.  House salads,  served automatically with entrées are fresh mixed greens on a chilled plate with a house-made creamy Italian dressing on the side (again, automatically) in a non-pretentious little stainless steel cup. I didn’t get a chance to ask for the dressing on the side (which I seldom do, anyway) as I didn’t know the salad was coming.  So far, it was like eating in an Italian restaurant in the 50’s or 60’s before the trendy northern Italian restaurant invasion.
Mussels with White Wine Sauce
Sad news is that our waitress never heard of them ever serving a kettle of mussels in white wine sauce.  Damn.  That was what we came for.  “We DO, however have an appetizer of mussels” she said.  We ordered that and found that while the chef and the waitress had a memory lapse, the mussels and sauce were the same and it was good enough to make tears well up in my eyes.  Add the fresh garlic bread to “sop” with and the dish was complete.
Shrimp Fra Divalo
Next we ordered Shrimp Fra Diavolo and, frankly, were surprised at its depth.   Nice. Really nice.  The marinara was touched by just enough red pepper flakes to make your palate remember that it had recently done its job, but it wasn’t oppressive heat.  The shrimp were large and were cooked perfectly… springy to the bite and not even slightly overcooked.  The spaghetti was al dente and it was a truly delightful dish.
Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni and Eggplant
Where today would you find a combination plate outside of a Mexican restaurant? Had our next course not been 100% Italian, I would have expected Italian/Mexican fusion.  We ordered a “Baked Pasta Combo #3” comprised of Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni, and Eggplant.  Served in an individual baking dish, all was complimented by a rich red sauce and bubbling mozzarella and parmesan.  I was not hoping to find something to gripe about, but if I had been… this wasn’t it either.  Serious southern Italian comfort food, in my opinion.  I was worried.  This review was heading toward being a puff piece.  Maybe they would mess up dessert.
Dessert was a crispy Cannoli filled with creamy ricotta and topped with a rich chocolate sauce and shaved chocolate.  Our waitress served it for sharing and we did, with glee.  Followed by espresso (which I would have loved to have hotter… there, I found something served there that wasn’t perfect), we had a delightful lunch at Mangola’s. 
11786 South Wilcrest at Highway 59 south in Houston

Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria

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.  
Lamb Scottadita
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).
Berry Tart
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.
Caffe Bello
322 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77006
Fax 713-520-5588

Chili’s new logo aimed at the Tex-Mex Ignorant?

As a fourth-generation Texan, long-time chili cook and cookoff contestant, I have always been critical of those restaurants that have the name “chili” in their names, yet don’t seem to know how to make the product.  I always felt that the Brinker International folks made a pretty reasonable bowl of chili and were serious when naming their restaurant “Chili’s” after Texas’ national dish. Examples of businesses that abuse the name “chili” and serve something other than what a reasonable person would call ”chili” might be found in Ohio (the homeland of non-chili being called chili)… such as Cincinnati Chili… which is defined by its beans and spaghetti and the infamous Skyline Chili (a Middle East-inspired concoction boasting cinnamon and allspice).  But, Chili’s? While Dallas isn’t known as the birthplace of chili… it IS in Texas and it’s the birthplace of Brinker International.  Anyway, this article isn’t about the quality of chili at Chili’s… it’s about whether or not Chili’s has hired ad people who don’t know the difference between Chili (a meat soup or stew seasoned with chiles) and Chile (Spanish for pepper).
 The new logo for Chili’s is a “chile” with an apostrophe, indicating the possessive of the word chile… or “Chile’s”.  No big deal, as I guess Chili’s has grown so much where they may have more stores out of chili country where the new logo isn’t a distraction… but it does get the attention of those who know the difference between a bowl of chili and a jalapeno. Did you say that Texas doesn’t own the patent on chili?  You’re right… but at least we know what it is.  And we damn-sure know what a “chile” is.
 The old logo may not be as cute, but it made sense:
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