Blog of an aspiring foodie

A return to The Italian Cafe (crosspost with HouCH Yahoo! Group)

Posted by beer_chris on 13-June-2009

A few months ago I absolutely skewered The Italian Cafe on this board. It’s a really popular BYOB spot out here in Clear Lake, in Pasadena at NASA Road 1 and Kirby. I’ve felt a little guilty about that ever since, as my wife thinks maybe I was putting too much weight on one visit and not giving the place enough credit for the atmosphere, which really is grand. Needless to say, we had a bottle of Nickel and Nickel 2006 Suscol Ranch Merlot and wanted a place to take it – and decided close to home was better than in town.

I actually suggested The Italian Cafe, wanting to give it another chance after thinking about it a little more. We had a resonably nice visit – and I don’t think the place is on my ‘never’ list anymore, but it’s not a recommendation for someone to drive all the way out here to get to.

PROS

The space: It is tucked into a little strip center slot, narrow and deep. The open kitchen is tight, clean and run very efficiently – it’s actually quite entertaining just to watch them work. Specials are laid out on a front table – in my case I ordered a roast pork loin, turned around to the kitchen and I saw the entire loin that had just come out of the oven. Ingredients are stacked on shelves that face the dining room. Things are a little tight, but the place ‘buzzes’ without being overwhelming. Big boisterous groups, couples and families all get along well without getting in one another’s way. Pretty well the definition of ‘casual bistro’.

The family-owned atmosphere: The owner sits on a chair in the front and greets everyone, and his wife wanders through the restaurant, fixing this or that. The walls are covered with pictures of the owner’s travels, and a big LCD screen rotates through digital shots. At the cashier stand is a set of flyers announcing the next trip to Italy, and inviting whomever to join in. Pretty cool. The expediter announces your number (you pick up your own food) and does last minute plating (ubiquitous chopped parsley goes on every plate)

The corkage fee: Only $5. A steal.

CON

The food: It’s not bad, as I previously harped on. It’s just not good either. My previous visits where I had tinny tomato sauce and limp bread were probably an anomaly. The place turns out pretty freshly cooked plates most of the time with reasonably good ingredients. However, I described it to my wife when we left as ‘Perfectly Acceptable Italian Food’. There are just some clumsy touches that keep the good ingredients and homey recipes from being really great. The boxed penne (DeCecco – a solid brand I’ve used before at home) that comes with everything is cooked to order – so its not mushy or anything terrible like that, but it adds a serious amount of water to everything it touches (is it impossible to drain this stuff?). My pork was seasoned really nicely, but overcooked and a bit dry. The gorgonzola salad I had was fine – lots of cheese – but way too much vinegar in the dressing. The cream sauce served with my pork was actually well balanced – but my plate had easily 1+ tablespoons of capers in it. The salty, briny caper flavor completely overwhelmed everything else. The wife had meat lasagna – and it came out looking really nice – a huge portion. However, the piece she had was all ricotta – I like ricotta, but I tasted almost no sausage or the flavor of the delicate and quite good marinara.

BOTTOM LINE

Sigh. I really want to like this place, and the atmosphere is *almost* worth it, but the food leaves something to be desired. If you’re ever looking for a place in Clear Lake with a low corkage, a good atmosphere and unimpressive yet Perfectly Acceptable Italian Food, ‘The Italian Cafe’ is your spot – but not worth a special trip out here. Stick with Collinas ITL.

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