One of our ongoing quests is to find a good independent Italian restaurant in the Woodlands - a place that can be our "go to" spot when we're in the mood for something from Italy.

We heard rumors of a new authentic Italian place, but couldn't imagine where it could be.  Google Maps led us to the location, a nondescript strip center on I-45's northbound side, just north of Rayford/Sawdust.  We've passed this center a thousand times, and have never stopped in.

We turned in, and found Capri.  It's a small place, featuring pasta, pizza, "& more".  We entered, and were immediately taken by the charm of the small room.  A third of it is devoted to the open kitchen.  Not the artfully staged cooking theater found in some chains, but a real working kitchen out there in plain sight, a good sign of nothing to hide.  The rest of the room is nicely decorated with Italian art, and the overall feel is very homey - a thousand miles away from the slick corporate Italian spots that dominate the Woodlands.  The interior was fairly dark, which created a nice atmosphere; we certainly didn't feel like we were in a strip center.

We were seated, and the young waitress brought us menus.  A quick perusal revealed dishes that reflected a Tuscan slant to Italian cuisine, with a variety of pastas, meats, and vegetables.

The owner, Barbara Coglianese, appeared at our table, welcoming us.  When we showed interest in her restaurant and what she was doing, we got the whole story.  Barbara and her husband Maurizio moved to the States from Italy several years ago, and they opened this restaurant in January.  Maurizio travels in his business, and Barbara runs the place most of the time, with her family and a few dedicated staff members.  Barbara is a charming woman with a ready smile whose passion for cooking comes through when she talks about her food.  We put ourselves in her hands, and looked forward to what her kitchen would create.

My entree was pollo scaloppine with a light lemony sauce.  The chicken was pounded flat and very tender, and the sauce was smooth, slightly sweet and delightfully citrusy.  Served on the side was a wonderful zucchini dish; thinly sliced, delicately sauteed in olive oil, very simple but superb.

We also sampled gnocchi alfredo, with the small potato dumplings amidst a smooth, creamy, and lushly buttery alfredo sauce, dusted with some mild Parmesan cheese. The flavors melded very well, making for a satisfying dish.

The common theme through the dishes we sampled was a sense of handcrafted food, created with skill and pride.  None of the recipes were hugely elaborate, but the care that was taken shined through, and the result was outstanding.

Prices are very good - lunch entrees are under $10, and dinner is generally in the low teens.  Steaks are affordable (generally under $20) and kids meals are $4.

In the past, we have bemoaned the lack of a good independent Italian restaurant in the Woodlands.  We're very glad that Barbara and Maurizio have opened Capri, bringing authentic Italian food to an area served mainly by big chains.

Buon Appetito!

Capri Pasta Pizza & More
25602 IH-45 North
Suite 101
Spring, Texas 77386
(281) 298-0055

Capri on Urbanspoon

A few weeks ago we made our first visit to Grimaldi's (@GrimaldisPizza) and we were very disappointed. But we've heard so many good things about this Brooklyn-based chain that we had to give them a second try. (And the fact that there are very few good pizza joints in the Woodlands entered in to the equation as well.)

We're glad we gave them a second shot.

On this visit, all of our complaints with Grimaldi's legendary thin crust pizza were gone. The pepperoni had a nice savory tang, and the tremendous grease which ruined our last pizza was noticeably absent. The sauce (still sparingly applied) was sweet and very slightly spicy; we see how folks could be blown away by this sauce.

The result? A delicious pizza; perhaps the best thin crust pizza we've sampled. Grimaldi's is now in our regular rotation for casual dining in the Woodlands.

It's the end of the year, and time for us to recognize the people, places, and things that impressed us the most during the previous year.

Opening of the Year

Haven. Chef Randy Evans has been without a kitchen since Ike did a number on Brennan's, and rumors of his environmentally responsible Modern Texas Cuisine project were buzzing around the foodie community. Unlike many hotly anticipated restaurants, Haven opened with all cylinders firing, delighting patrons with its tightly focused, well executed menu.

Honorable Mentions: Tesar's, Ciao Bello, Chez Roux, Stella Sola

Event of the Year

Tenacity Dinners. Culinary magician and Houston rock star chef Randy Rucker (@greensandbeans) doesn't need a fixed location to practice his art. So he's organized periodic underground dining events, assisted by some of H-Town's top culinary talent. Foodies flock to the events, expecting to be wowed by Rucker's creations, and they walk way with their expectations exceeded. The best measure of their success: Every Tenacity dinner sells out minutes after it's announced, but you can read and drool on Rucker's blog.

Honorable Mentions: Fried Chicken Throwdown, Pork Belly Throwdown, Blogger Trip to the Inn at Dos Brisas

Foodie Accessory of the Year

Apple iPhone. The iPhone lets a foodie roam all around the Houston area and still keep his finger on the pulse of the food community. Apps like Yelp and UrbanSpoon give insight into previously unknown-to-you restaurants, and the map application's traffic display keeps you on schedule. The good enough camera lets you record your dining experience in excruciating detail, so you can share it with the world with a Twitter or blog client. You can even keep tabs on your bank account.

Honorable Mentions: Thermal immersion circulator, bottle of Tums, Randy Rucker's e-mail address

Burger of the Year

Tie: Tesar's Magic and Beaver's Burger. New York and Chicago can fight over who has the best pizza (it's NYC) but Houston stands alone as the city with the best burgers in the country. And while legendary burger joints like Christian's Totem continue to turn out an excellent product, two local chefs have raised the bar considerably in the burger world.

John Tesar has put together a superlative burger. Tesar's Burger Bar (located inside his Woodlands restaurant) offers several different burgers, but the purist Magic is our favorite. It's the iconic bacon cheeseburger taken to its ultimate conclusion with top quality ingredients and meticulous execution.

Johnathan Jones (@PapaBeav) takes a slightly different route at Beaver's, with equally impressive results. Ground sirloin is masterfully combined with brisket and ground bacon, and combines this unique patty with carefully selected components to produce a burger unlike anything we've tasted.

Which is better? We can't say. But we can say that a Houston burger lover needs to try them both.

Honorable Mentions: Christian's Totem, Farrago, Beck's Prime, Jasper's

Foodie of the Year

Katherine Shilcutt. Making the transition from blogger to the mainstream media isn't easy, but Shilcutt did so with style and verve. Her arrival at the Houston Press shook the cobwebs off the food writing at that alternative paper, and her Food Fight articles stimulate discussion (sometimes heated) throughout the foodie community. Her great twitter comments (@she_eats) complete the triple threat.

Honorable Mentions: Jenny Wang, Misha G., J.C. Reid, Jodie Eisenhardt

Critic of the Year

Alison Cook. The explosion of new media and food blogs brought many new voices sharing their opinions about dining, but one voice stands above all the rest: Alison Cook, the Chronicle's food critic. Her flowing prose takes the reader to the restaurant without leaving home, and her insightful analysis delves below the surface and educates the reader as well as entertains. Unlike many traditional journalists, Cook has embraced both twitter (@alisoncook) and blogging, and her Cook's Tour blog is a must follow for any Houston foodie.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, Ken Hoffman, Greg Morago

Restaurateur of the Year

Tony Vallone. Year after year, Houston's legendary restaurateur keeps his flagship restaurant Tony's at the forefront of Houston's culinary scene, and now he has another out-of-the-park hit with Ciao Bello, bringing authentic Italian cuisine to a packed house since opening day. In an industry where being around five years makes you and old timer, Vallone has been doing this for forty years, and is still at the top of his game. He's even on Twitter (@TonyVallone).

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Bryan Caswell, Mark Cox, Alex Brennan-Martin

Chef of the Year

Plinio Sandalio. While the executive chefs get all the attention, we feel that pastry chef Plinio Sandalio is doing the most creative work at any restaurant in Houston. Patrons are visiting his restaurant, Textile, just to experience Plinio's remarkable dessert tastings, which stretch the definition of dessert beyond what's being done anywhere else in town. His blog always makes us hungry, and he's active on twitter (@psandalio) as well.

Honorable Mentions: John Tesar, Randy Rucker, Jason Gould, Jonathan Jones

Restaurant of the Year

Beaver's Ice House. We loved the concept of a local upscale BBQ joint, and thought the initial incarnation of Beaver's was off to a promising start. But it took the addition of local star Jonathan Jones (@PapaBeav) at the helm to fully realize the possibilities. Beaver's delivers great BBQ, innovative Gulf Coast seafood, and stellar burgers in a setting that would be off-the-charts cool no matter where it was located. Beaver's has become more than a restaurant; it's the unofficial hangout of the Houston foodie community, and a great place to run into one of Houston's top chefs when he's not under his toque.

Honorable Mentions: Tony's, Indika, Tesar's, Feast

Update: Our second visit to Grimaldi's was a much better experience.

We've searched for years for superlative pizza in Houston. Sure, we have some decent places, but we've always hoped Houston would get a world-class pizza joint.

We'd been hearing great buzz about the Brooklyn import, Grimaldi's, which opened recently in Sugar Land. We'd not been down to try it, but we had been tracking the news about a second location in the Woodlands, which is our neighborhood. When we heard that they'd finally opened, we were anxious to find out what the noise was all about.

Grimaldi's is located in the scenic Woodlands Waterway area, right across the street from the popular Goose's Acre pub. It's a charming, two level restaurant, with a bar, small dining room, and charming sidewalk seating area upstairs. Downstairs is the oft-mentioned coal-fired oven, a bigger dining area, and more outdoor seating. The feel is classic NYC pizza joint, with lots of black-and-white photos of the Big Apple adorning the walls.

We grabbed a table on an early Saturday afternoon, and perused the menu. Pizza is clearly in the forefront here; the only entrees were pizza and calzone. Three versions are offered; classic marinara, white pizza with garlic, and a pesto option. We opted to try our benchmark: An extra-large marinara with pepperoni. Nothing fancy, just Grimaldi's take on the most popular pizza in America.

We also started with a small Caesar salad, which was plenty for the table. The caesar was mild but tasty; the romaine lettuce had a nice snap to it, and was very fresh. We'd have preferred more bite to the dressing, but we remembered that we weren't here for the salad.

After about 15 minutes, the pizza appeared. Beautifully cooked and resplendent with the bubbles that are a hallmark of a pizza cooked at high temperature, we savored the moment and dug into our first slice.

Wow. Disappointment.

What we tasted was one of the blandest pizzas we'd had in a long time. The marinara was barely to be found, and the cheese was extremely mild. The pepperoni was very greasy (it was running down our wrists as we ate) and almost flavorless. The high point was clearly the crust, a thin, crunchy/chewy creation, hand tossed, cooked perfectly and begging for some better toppings.

Perhaps we caught them on a bad day; perhaps our expectations were too high. But our pizza was nothing special; there are three places in the Woodlands that we enjoy more. We'll give them another visit, because we find it hard to believe that our fellow foodies would have raved as they have over pizza like this.

Bottom line: Our search continues for world-class pizza in Houston. Maybe Grimaldi's will deliver next time.

Grimaldi's. 20 Waterway Ave. The Woodlands, TX 77380. 281-465-3500

Grimaldi's Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

There's a new spot opening up in Vintage Park (Hwy 249 at Louetta) that we're looking forward to checking out. Called Peli Peli, it's an upscale casual restaurant with cuisine that looks very interesting.

Peli Peli (also known as Piri Piri or Peri Peri), which means Bird’s-Eye Chili, is a spice found by the Portuguese in the 15th Century on the plains of Southern Africa. The spice rapidly became popular when used to prepare sauces and marinades for Portuguese and African foods. The Bird's-Eye Chili is the cornerstone spice for the cuisine at Peli Peli.

The chef behind this new spot is Paul Friedman, the man who create Paul's Pizza, the popular local pizza chain with some very interesting recipes. Chef Paul has had over 35 years of experience in the restaurant industry, having owned and operated successful restaurant concepts in South Africa and Germany as well as Paul's Pizza.

They're planning a grand opening event with a Live Jazz Brunch on Mother's Day (May 10) from 11 to 3.

For more information, browse their Web Site

Our friends at Men's Health offer suggestions of healthier fast food choices for those who have to eat on the go.

Topping their list was a favorite of ours, Chick-fil-A. Surprisingly, almost all items on the Chick-fil-A menu are less than 500 calories. (Avoid the large cole slaw; it's the bad guy on the menu, with 600 calories.)

The next choice is an obvious one: Subway, offering a half-dozen sandwiches under 300 calories.

Other recommended spots include Jamba Juice, Au Bon Pain, Boston Market, Cici's Pizza, and surprisingly McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Wendy's.

America's 10 Best Fast-Food Restaurants on MSN Health and Fitness

Jasper's features modern interpretations of traditional American cuisine. Owned by Chef Kent Rathbun (one of the rare guest winners on Iron Chef America,) Jasper's delivers excellent cuisine in an upscale, casual setting.

We met a friend recently for lunch at Jasper's, and ordered one of their gourmet hamburgers.

The recipe: A half pound of high quality beef, hand-formed and grilled over a mixture of woods. Cooked to order (medium rare, in our case) and nicely juicy. Topped with your choice of cheese (cheddar for us) carmelized onions, thick cut applewood-smoked bacon, fresh veggies, and served on a barely toasted egg bun. The result is one of the best upscale burgers you'll find anywhere, and the side of housemade potato chips is a great finishing touch.

Other great bets include prime steaks, upscale BBQ dishes, and gourmet pizzas. They have a decadent appetizer of housemade potato chips covered with Maytag bleu cheese chunks and a creamy cheese sauce that's not to be missed. Desserts are excellent as well, and there is a wecome option of mini-desserts offering just a taste or three; perfect after a large meal.

Brunch is excellent as well; our favorite is Jasper's take on French Toast.

Bottom line: Best restaurant in the Woodlands... or anywhere Outside The Loop for that matter.

Jasper's: Market Street Square, 9595 Six Pines, The Woodlands, 77380, 281-298-6600

The Bibas empire as moved the idiosyncratic West Gray store to some upscale new digs on inner Westheimer. Located in the slot occupied by the late-but-not-terribly-lamented Rouge, Bibas has moved uptown in more ways that one.

The new location is lovely; much more upscale than the funky old spot. And the staff seems to have brought their attitude upscale to match the new digs - on our recent visit the service was prompt and professional.

Fortunately, the better-than-average Greek food as made the trip. Gyros are very good; the high volume assures that the meat is very fresh, the veggies are crisp, and the pitas are right off the pita-making-thing. Other Greek specialties are good as well: I often order the kotopita, the savory chicken dish served in flaky, layered pastry.

But my favorite thing at One's A Meal remains the pizza. The crust is hand tossed and chewy with a crunchy exterior, and the toppings are fresh and flavorful. My fave is the standard pepperoni, Greek-ified with the addition of feta cheese. It comes out chewy and gooey, and is one of the best pizzas in town.

Prices seem to have climbed slightly with the new fancier digs, but it remains a real bargain, especially for the neighborhood.

If you'd rather not wait in Niko-Niko's line, drive a block and enjoy both better service and better food.

One's A Meal: 812 Westheimer, Houston, 77006, 713-523-0425

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