Review: The abundant, affordable charms of Fresco Cafe Italiano
Walk into Fresco Cafe Italiano at 5:25 p.m. on a weekday, and it is possible to track the usefulness of this modest Italian BYOB.
Inside the long, basic dining room with its semi-serve rear counter, two gentlemen wearing red company workshirts bend together over plates of pasta, rehashing the events of the day. A harried-looking woman clutching an insulated bagful of ice cubes commandeers a table for four, and presently three of her colleagues from a nearby office filter in, toting wine bottles as a waiter distributes stemmed glassware and menus.
Then come the families from the surrounding neighborhood: first a group of five, then four, the kids clutching tablets while grownups order half portions of pizza and pasta for them from the “Bambini” menu.
Presently the millennials show up, two or three at a time, until the whole modest joint is filled with a diverse supper crowd eating simply and well for not a lot of money.
Fresco Cafe Italiano
3277 Southwest Freeway, 281-888-2226
Hours: L&D daily: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays
Credit cards: all major
Prices: Starters $3-$18; entrees $6-$16; desserts $5
Must-orders: Roman pizzas with house-made sausage and red onion or arugula and prosciutto; Umbrian lentil soup; chicken Marengo with mushrooms and crawfish; linguini with clams; tagliolini with vegetables and shrimp; almond torta
Reservations: First come, first served
Noise level: Quiet to moderate
Parking: Strip-mall lot in front
Such is the unpretentious realm of chef Roberto Crescini, a native of Italy who two years ago served as the opening chef of Enoteca Rossa, a neighborhood spot midway between West University Place and Bellaire.
Crescini has found a new home not far away, in a strip mall on U.S. 59 between Buffalo Speedway and Edloe. His new business is part pasta manufactory, part takeout, part sit-down restaurant, and it’s the kind of place that punches above its weight class.
Consider, for instance, the chicken Marengo, one of those rare sauced chicken-breast dishes that is actually worth eating. The chicken is meticulously grilled, and its Marsala sauce has that dusky, near-caramelized flavor typical of the fortified wine, made savory with mushrooms, chopped tomato and curled crawfish tails.
With a side of housemade spaghetti, the noodles coiled in a nest that has some bounce to it, the Marengo is a serious plate of food for 14 bucks. Want less? Eight dollars buys you a bowl of lilting Umbrian lentil soup, dotted with a dice of carrot and celery and deeply flavored with onion, garlic and house-made guanciale, the cured Italian pork jowl.
That same $8 will buy a rectangular hunk of Roman-style pizza topped with mozzarella, red onion and plenty of spicy pork sausage that the chef makes himself. Crisp on the edges and focaccia-like within, the crust splits the difference nicely between thick and thin.
Pizza snobs with sky-high Neapolitan standards may look down their noses. I don’t. I actually chortled with glee trying to remove a square of the Fredda pizza from its tray. The molten mozzarella stretched and coiled into footlong ribbons as I lifted it; and the play of salty prosciutto, bitter arugula and sweet tomato against that milky cheese kept me happy.
So did a clean-tasting, effective bowl of house-made linguini studded with little clams in their shells, steamed so that their juices emptied into a little-nothing coating of extra-virgin olive oil and garlic. Crescini cooks in a restrained Italian style that uses a handful of ingredients and lets them shine. Nothing is fussy or oversauced.
Mostly that is all to the good, although occasionally I found my Houston palate longing for a little more oomph. That was the case with a low-key Amatriciana sauce barely coating long, hollowed bucatini, with lengths of that house-cured guanciale lurking below. A small bite of red pepper or a little twinge of acid might have kept my interest up better, but the dish was solid.
So, in the same manner, were flat ribbons of tagliatelle with a Texas lamb sauce braised for seven hours, according to the menu, with carrots, celery, onion and tomato. Perfectly nice but perhaps too perfectly laid back. Again, though, the pasta was cooked to a pleasant, springy condition.
Indeed, the only pasta dish I could quarrel with is a square of five-layered lasagna in which the noodle sheets — bound by a Bolognese sauce with a texture that was almost puréed — were unnervingly soft. In combination with melty cheese and béchamel sauce, the result was almost gluey. Granted, thin house-made pasta sheets are not going to yield the same doughty textures as thick, rippled planks of dried lasagna noodles, but I kept wishing for bits of meat or vegetables or crisped edges to bite into.
Lasagna aside, there is plenty I look forward to eating here in the future. I loved Crescini’s elemental version of eggplant Parmigiana at Enoteca Rossa, and here it is again: pan-fried without breading (so the dish is gluten free), then swathed with marinara, oozy mozzarella and fresh basil.
The tagliolini with carefully julienned zucchini and leeks I admired at Enoteca Rossa show up at Fresco with the addition of grilled shrimp. And there’s a pretty constellation of desserts that includes apple tortes glazed with apricot, tiny cannoli and a lovely, buttery cake made with almond flour. It tastes as if marzipan had turned into a soft-crumbed cloud.
Be sure to ask about the daily specials. One weekend, I was surprised to encounter a rustic stew of trippa alla Romana, the bouncy, jellied lengths of tripe sharing a tomato-tinted broth with carrot and pale brown beans. If you like menudo, it’s worth a try. It tasted like nothing I’d expect to eat in a strip-front mall with a view of Lakewood Church, rather than the Colosseum.
That makes Fresco fun. Its prices, BYOB policy and seven-day schedule make it user friendly. So does a build-your-own pasta option by which you can combine 10 pastas, nine sauces and three proteins (chicken, salmon or shrimp) any way you please. Eat your creation on the spot; have them cook it for you to take home; or take home the elements separately and cook or heat them yourself.
Disarmingly sweet, informative service by the young man who runs the front of the house (all by himself, from what I’ve seen) makes it feel welcoming. Chef Roberto himself is wont to pop out of the kitchen to offer to make you something special or to demonstrate how he grinds his own Parmesan daily.
This is exactly the kind of place busy Houstonians may want to put in their rotation. It’s just a few blocks down from the Chronicle offices, so it’s already on mine.