First Bite: Enoteca Rossa
It's a problem in every industry, but an especially difficult one in the culinary world: Most of us under 40 have been raised as special unicorns who think we can start our careers at the top. Ask any chef or restaurateur about hiring line cooks—it's never easy.
At least in this country.
Apprenticeship is still the standard in European kitchens, where fledgling cooks don't question learning their trade from a master. Fortunately for Houston, that tradition has carried over to the kitchen of Roberto Crescini at Enoteca Rossa.
In the small Bellaire restaurant, which opened in April, young chefs are willing to start their careers at the beginning in order to work with Crescini and pizzaiolo Carlo Olivieri, both of whom have plied their trades since their early teens. Neither is adept at communicating in English, but both easily telegraph their passion for food.
When Oliviero folds chunks of ricotta and canned truffles into flaps of dough, he appears to be at least slightly in love or lust with each of the ingredients. He gingerly turns his star-shaped creation while it's in the wood-fired oven so each of its four points receives an even lick of char. When eaten, it's an explosion of umami, paired with a whole ball of burrata, arugula and tangy preserved cherry tomatoes.
There are plenty of good Bologneses in Houston, but I've found fewer really satisfying ragús that don't use ground meat. Crescini gives his version a locavore spin with braised Texas lamb tarted up a bit with tomatoes and mirepoix, but otherwise leaves it to stand on its own meaty merits. The pasta over which it's served is also a thing of beauty, cooked to just the right moment of an al dente ideal.
It's not the only pasta dish that references Texas: There's ravioli filled with buffalo ricotta and jalapeños for just a hint of heat, served in a basil butter sauce dotted with sundried tomatoes. Farfalle in red sauce also has an uncommon smack of spice in the form of chipotle sausage.
A respite from doughy pizzas and pastas, entrées mostly focus on meat and vegetables. They include duck breast in porcini mushroom sauce; a rack of lamb crusted in mustard, garlic and almonds; and a vegetarian "Spa Special," market veggies served with grilled tomino cheese.
Meanwhile, organic Canadian king salmon is served crisped with a medium-rare center and covered in what Crescini calls "aromatic butter," an amalgamation of 40 different spices. Is it overkill? Kind of, but the result is a Gobstopper-like effect that leaves each bite tasting almost entirely different from the last. It's especially good on the subtly sweet zucchini.
Surprisingly for a den of pizza and pasta, Crescini's sweets (with the exception of breakfast pastries sold at the bar) are uniformly gluten-free. He recently took over the dessert menu after parting ways with his pastry chef. The results include a flourless peach cake with a texture not unlike a coconut macaroon with the coconut. Crunchy shreds of the palm do appear, however, in the house gelato that perches atop the cake.
A jiggly panna cotta is flavored with almond so pure and floral, our dining companion initially thought it was lavender. It, too, makes use of the season's bounteous peaches. And that's what is so darn likable about Enoteca Rossa. Whether it's peaches or jalapeños, Crescini isn't afraid to take Texan ingredients and use them to his own decidedly Italian devices.