The parent company of North Italia—a new Galleria-area hot spot—is an empire in the making, with 14 restaurant concepts, 40 locations and one rather unpromising name, Fox Restaurant Concepts. Unpromising because of that last word, which seems to portend an eating experience predictable, bland, generic. Worse, FRC is based in Phoenix, which last I checked was a culinary capital according to no one, save the nationally notable Pizzeria Bianco. As such, not a few drivers shake their heads in disbelief as they inch along Post Oak past the gaily painted North Italia, though whether this is traceable to the eatery or the ongoing pains of bumper-to-bumperism is impossible to say.
I am not above this sort of culinary snobbery myself, and though I stop short at foraging for morels in the Hill Country, do pride myself on locavoring whenever possible. We all have our weaknesses, however, and mine is for grey striped awnings. Thus did I find myself at North Italia’s bar nursing an apricot limonada on a recent afternoon, savoring a plate of grilled cauliflower and weighing the possible damage to my reputation that a positive review might bring.
One does not savor cauliflower, that most nondescript of brassicas, you will say. Ah, but one does, especially when swirled with a creamy pancetta sauce, bread crumbs and asparagus before being topped with a fried egg. North Italia casts a similar spell over another homely vegetable, by the way, zucchini, creating a winning appetizer out of lightly fried, paper-thin slices of it. Zucca chips they are called, and your table will fight over them.
Half the walls in the large barn-like dining room are covered with floor-to-ceiling windows, which brings a cheerfulness to the proceedings, as do the canvas-covered barstools and glass teardrop lanterns hanging over them. And way in the back, bedecked in cherry red, is the open-plan kitchen, furiously busy and conspicuously visible from the dining room. There’s nothing special about that, of course, not these days. But there is something special about what North Italia’s kitchen produces each day: tons of house-made pasta, all of it available in dishes at a surprisingly reasonable price.
It’s that modest price point—quite the most impressive thing on a multi-impressive menu—that accounts for North Italia’s swift rise to prominence. Indeed, the only thing growing faster than its fan base is the collective terror of the city’s chef-stablishment. After all, once it has been proved definitively that a very fine pizza can be constructed from a chewy, richly flavored crust made daily on the premises, one that’s topped with sizzling bacon, a farm egg and other high quality ingredients, and costs just $13—well, you can see what North Italia’s competitors are up against. Others may attempt a truffle garlic bread, to give another example, but few would paint it with the restaurant’s own ricotta, and fewer still would charge $7 for it.
More expensive fare can be found, though it’s the noodles that best argue for North Italia’s artisanal approach. The availability of “pasta made fresh in house daily,” as the menu has it, only hints at the quotidian output of a kitchen that takes ownership of its spaghetti and strozzapreti, tagliatelle and tortelloni, gigli and gnocchi—all of it fresh and tender. (Only the gluten-free noodles are made off-site.) The sauces are irresistibly buttery (don’t miss the parmesan cream), their accompaniments wonderfully portioned (see chicken, pesto) and perfectly cooked (see scallops, seared).
Not one diner in 10 will have room for dessert after the foregoing, which is too bad, because there are at least two that merit attention—the bombolini (four golf ball-sized donuts floating in a lake of lemon curd and mascarpone), and the rich chocolate tart, which, apparently insecure about its decadence, is served with bits of toffee and a healthy dollop of Nutella mousse.
The only thing more interesting than the car-bound faces trudging down Post Oak Blvd. these days are the car-bound faces flying through Midtown. I take peculiar pleasure in watching the latter, especially the slack-jawed visages of suburbanites gawking at the pedestrian-friendly urban village taking shape on the other side of the glass, at strangers conversing while their dogs sniff each other, at neighbors biking home with fresh produce in their baskets, at restaurants where there’s no question as to who got the best parking space or if it’s time to take away Doug’s keys. Though clearly on the ascendant, the urban Houstonian still leaves the exurban one gobsmacked, and yet they feel drawn to Midtown anyway, mesmerized by its inevitability.
Rebecca Masson appears to know this. Even as she pipes cream puffs onto cookie sheets in the kitchen of her new Fluff Bake Bar, fills them with squirts from her pastry bag, or glazes them with salted caramel, she peers out at the Gray St. cityscape with satisfaction. And Gray St. peers right back at her the same way, grateful for her daily output of artfully turned croissants, although it’s Masson’s decadent and seductive sweets for which she is best known. Indeed, these creations have led some to call her the Sugar Fairy, a nod to the chef’s magical gifts, and others to call her the Sugar Hooker, a reference to both her desserts’ addictiveness and their tendency to leave you feeling dirty afterwards.
Take Masson’s couch potato cookie, for instance. It presents innocuously enough, a fortifying tart-looking concoction such as you might see the Queen of Hearts bake in a Mother Goose book illustration. The difference is that this cookie has been tarted up big time, with pretzels, cornflakes, potato chips, marshmallows—the whole shame-based hall of fame. The couch potato is surprising, naughty, delicious, profane, and I must have another one at the earliest opportunity.
There’s a friendly look to Fluff Bake Bar, owing to its space—as light and airy as a meringue—and the small milk bottles full of daisies that top its tables. The convivial atmosphere is even more pronounced at night, when wine and beer nudge the cappuccinos aside, plated desserts take center stage and no mousse is safe from chocolate stout. But there’s a darkness to the place too: Watching Masson’s patrons succumb one-by-one to the temptations of her fluffernutters is as terrifying as any medieval morality play.
In short, most anything consumed at Fluff Bake Bar—the Meyer lemon tart, the carrot cake in a cup, and especially the snickerdoodle—will need to be mentioned later to your priest in confession, but do not expect the church’s disapproval to hold much sway. Indeed, when it comes to Masson’s homemade Oreos, or for that matter, her chocolate butterscotch tart or birthday cake-flavored macaron, eternal damnation is a small price to pay.