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Gnocchi di patate viola.

Image: Alice Levitt

Mezzanotte has been a not-so-hidden gem in a Cypress strip mall since 2005. A mostly full dining room on a Wednesday night and a perpetual place on the Houston Chronicle's top 100 restaurants list is evidence that the word is most certainly out. But while it's a wonderful neighborhood spot for locals, it's not exactly easy-access for inner loop diners. But on Wednesday nights, the Tapas Madness menu may be worth the commute.

Why? Start with 11 not-so-small plates that all ring up at $5. Fancier options such as a filet mignon and pistachio-crusted lamb chops are more expensive at $9 and $12. But the real reason to visit Mezzanotte, whether for tapas night, Prix-Fixe Thursday, or any other time, is chef/co-owner Gerry Sarmiento's idiosyncratic cuisine.

He and wife Adriana also owned Peruvian restaurant Piqueo, perhaps a more obvious choice for natives of the South American country. But Sarmiento's heritage creeps into many of his Italian dishes. Take, for example, the gnocchi above. Purple potatoes? Purely Peruvian. Rich but silky Gorgonzola cream sauce with crisp, sweet pears? Utterly Italian. The result is a dish that would cause you to with for more if you weren't already slightly full after plate number one. 

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Filetto al Bosco.

Image: Alice Levitt

The scamorza fritta is a medallion of fried cheese served atop a pool of salsa verde that splits the difference between pesto and chimichurri, with the addition of anchovies. The filetto al bosco is an even stranger (and almost as delicious) mix of flavors. The not-so-petite filet is rubbed with ground porcini mushrooms for a blast of umami. Combined with brown sugar and spices, the result tastes like... teriyaki. But with an ultra-tender steak with nary a hint of imperfect real estate, it is some teriyaki. 

There are dishes that are more purely Italian, too. The spezzatino di maiale is a fork-tender pork shoulder braised in red wine in a style that recalls osso buco without the bone. It melts over a plate filled with creamy polenta. It will make you nostalgic for a nonna you never had. And one order of it, plus one of the other small plates, might be enough for a $10 dinner to remember.

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