Ciao Bello is the latest creation from the minds of Tony and Jeff Vallone, the father and son team who have become legends in Houston's culinary scene. Our foodie friends were abuzz when word of this new establishment leaked out, and we decided not to wait to check it out.

(With most restaurants, giving 'em a couple of weeks to sort things out is prudent, but knowing Tony Vallone, the staff will be ready and on their game before the first customer walks in the door.)

We scored a table late on a Friday night (no luck at all the previous weekend) and zipped over to the San Felipe location, ready to experience the food.

We walked in to a crowded, bustling restaurant, and were immediately seated in the dining room. Tall and airy, modern without being stuffy, the room buzzed with energy. There were no empty tables, even at this lateish hour, and the waiters were constantly in motion. The energy of the room reminded me of the Grotto in its heydey.

But let's talk food. We feel that the heart of any Italian restaurant is its pasta, so we sampled several.

First up was the Agnolotti di Zucca. Delicate, handmade, thin pasta pillows filled with butternut squash, the dish was finished with a light, creamy sage essence. This dish balanced sweet and savory with a deft touch. We've often found this sort of ravioli to be cloyingly sweet, but the Vallone kitchen avoided this misstep with deftness rare in a restaurant open a year, much less one open a week. One of us declared this the best example of this dish she's ever tried.

Next was the Osso Buco Ravioli. A bolder flavor, the amazingly tender meat was infused with an earthy flavor that was bold but not overpowering. The richness was impressive; without a doubt we will order this dish again.

Our final pasta dish was a suggestion from Jeff Vallone - the Rigatoni Bolognese. We were pleased by the smooth combination of the beef and tomato flavors, and the undertones of pancetta and onions were spectacularly balanced. This is perhaps the most complex and interesting Bolognese sauce we can remember sampling.

Veering away from the pasta, our next dish was the fascinating Cuscinetti. Plump chicken breasts stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach, and fontina, this dish seemed deceptively simple until the second or third bite, then the boldness of the sausage (with nice hints of fennel) balanced out the mild, tender chicken and the smooth fontina, the spinach adding a very slightly acidic bite to the mix. Our favorite dish of the night.

Dessert was an apple crostata, light and understated, and something were were barely able to finish.

An important note: We were impressed by the reasonable prices of the dishes we ordered. No item approached $20, which made our mix-and-match approach to dining surprisingly affordable.

We have a new favorite Italian spot in Houston. We'll be back again soon.

Ciao Bello. 5161 San Felipe. Houston, TX 77056. (713) 960-0333

Ciao Bello on Urbanspoon

Exciting news about the new concept coming to the Hotel Derek.

Hotel Interactive Reports:

"An Italian legend is headed to Houston. For more than 37 years, Piero Selvaggio has been celebrated for providing a true taste of Italy at his award-winning restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas. His passion as a wine collector, over 130,000 bottles and growing, just earned Selvaggio induction into the Italian Wine Hall of Fame. Soon, Houstonians will be able to experience the exceptional Italian cuisine, award-winning wine cellar and legendary hospitality when PS Valentino Vin Bar opens at the Hotel Derek, the fashionable boutique hotel in the Galleria. The restaurant will open this fall.

"PS Valentino Vin Bar will house two special dining experiences, an intimate fine dining restaurant and the more casual Vin Bar. Houstonians and Hotel Derek patrons can enjoy Selvaggio’s commitment to an authentic, yet inventive Italian dining experience or choose the eclectic Vin Bar with its wide selection of innovative dishes in a “primi” or small plate format as well as an extensive by-the-glass wine list. The restaurant will also feature multiple private dining areas for special occasions and business functions. Executive Chef and partner, Luciano Pellegrini, who was awarded one of the culinary world's highest honors, Best Chef in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2004, said “we’ll serve traditional and inventive food with a deep rooted Italian influence that takes into consideration local ingredients, seasonality, and market availability.”

Hotel Derek General Manager, Hans Schmitt, said “we are thrilled to be working with the Valentino team. This truly is a perfect partnership for Hotel Derek as we pride ourselves on exacting hospitality in a chic and welcoming setting. Selvaggio and Pellegrini have developed an incredible restaurant concept which we believe will suit our guests perfectly. Houston is an international city with an appetite for new and exciting food and wine. With both the intimate dining setting and the more casual Vin Bar bistro area under the same roof, overseen by these legendary culinary entrepreneurs, Houstonians and our hotel’s patrons can look forward to a truly memorable experience.”

"The Valentino Restaurant Group is home to Valentino, the flagship restaurant founded in Santa Monica in 1972 by restaurateur Piero Selvaggio. Following the success of the original Valentino Restaurant, Selvaggio opened Valentino Las Vegas at the Venetian Hotel in 1999 and Giorgio, in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in 2004. Selvaggio is considered one of the modern fathers of Italian cuisine in America, capturing the charm, warmth and festive spirit of Italian hospitality. "

Let's get this out of the way up front: We're not huge fans of large restaurant chains. We are all about small family owned restaurants where the chef and owner is intimately involved with everything from the cuisine to the decor.

But in our modern world, most folks dine regularly at chain restaurants. So it's helpful to find out which ones deliver, and which ones confirm the stereotypes.

Consumer Reports did a recent survey of over 70,000 subscribers making over 150,000 visits to over a hundred different chains. And the results are interesting.

Patrons gave 21 chains top marks for food. Included were The Original Pancake House, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Texas Road House, Bone Fish Grill, Morton's the Steakhouse and Abuelo's.

Five chains earned exceptional scores for value: Black-eyed Pea, Sonny's Real Pit BBQ, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, and First Watch.

At the other end of the spectrum, with lower marks across the board, were Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Joe's Crab Shack, and Friendly's.

For good meals on a budget (less than $20,) respondents recommended Mimi's Cafe, Abuelo's, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, Elephant Bar Restaurant and Texas Roadhouse. Those restaurants earned better-than-average marks for food and value. First Watch and The Original Pancake House were also standouts for food and value, but are limited to breakfast and lunch fare.

When choosing a chain for a special occasion, Houston's, J. Alexander's, Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Maggiano's Little Italy, Il Fornaio, Bonefish Grill, McCormick & Schmick's, The Capital Grille, Morton's the Steakhouse, Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Melting Pot all earned the highest marks for food, mood, and service.

Respondents weren't shy about discussing problems. Noise (from loud customers and crowded tables) was the complaint cited most often. The Texas Road House, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, and Hooters were among the chains cited with higher than average noise complaints. Sloppy service (waiters or waitresses were inattentive or slow to bring food or the check) was next. The Rainforest Cafe, Friendly's and
the Cheesecake Factory were among the eight chains with above average
complaint rates.

Friendly's, Shoney's, and Logan's Roadhouse were among the chains cited for lack of cleanliness (bathrooms or floors were dirty, tableware was grimy). On average food-prep problems complaints (dishes were under- or overcooked, had too much or too little seasoning, or looked unappetizing) were low--only about 7 percent

There were also complaints about long waits, which were more likely than average at The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Texas Roadhouse, Houston's, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, and Outback Steakhouse. At those restaurants, 6 to 14 percent of respondents waited 30 minutes or more to be seated.

We'd observed a new place going in along I-45 across from the the Woodlands Mall. It was named Ambience... and we had no idea what it was. One Saturday we ventured in, and discovered a new, family-run restaurant and lounge.

Upon entering, we found a lovely setting. Dark yet inviting, the interior was totally redone from the location's previous incarnation. As you enter, on the right is a large lounge area, with lots of leather seating and a full-service bar.

Further back is the dining room. We were seated promptly, and soaked up the vibe of the place. It feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant; there's a second bar on one side of the room, and the blacked out roof, sound system, and mood lighting add to that, um, ambience.

Our server appeared with the menu, and we were surprised... in a good way. A nice selection of international sandwiches and wraps, as well as an eclectic set of entrees - Asian, South American, Mexican, Italian, and American. Prices were good: Entrees are in the $9-11 range, and lighter dishes like sandwiches ranged from $6 to $8.

We tried the Argentinean Chimmichurri Mini Burgers. Instead of the traditional ground beef slider, ours featured marinated and grilled fajita meat, swiss cheese, grilled onions, a bit of lettuce, and housemade chimmichurri sauce. The result was delicious; a multicultural kaleidoscope of flavor. We opted for the yucca fries, a light and healthy alternative to the traditional french fries, and used them to sop up every drop of the chimmichurri sauce.

Our companion tried the empanadas. Ground beef, delicately seasoned and wrapped in a pastry shell, these were among the best we've tried. The side of housemade onion rings were a good accompanyment; the batter was light, crisp, and slightly sweet.

Service was prompt, professional and friendly.

We didn't partake (since it was lunchtime) but Ambience offers live music or a DJ on weekends, and they rearrange the tables to allow for dancing. Dinner and dancing is a tradition that we miss, and we think they've got a great concept for the Woodlands area.

Combine the excellent and varied cuisine, great service, a nice room, and very reasonable prices, and Ambience is a winner. We're looking forward to returning soon.

We were out in the far northwest reaches of the Woodlands last Sunday, and had an hour to kill. We headed out to the newish center at the intersection of 1488 and 2978.

This area used to literally be BFE, because the map shows the town of Egypt at that intersection. It's amazing how it has grown up in the past few years.

Searching around, we saw a Which Wich shop, and we'd never visited one, so our choice was made.

Upon entering, we were faced with a display filled with hundreds of small paper bags, and a wall explaining everything. The Which Wich concept is different: Pick the bag that corresponds to the category of sandwich you want, then customize by ticking off the appropriate boxes on the bag. Hand it over, and in a few minutes, you get it back, filled with a sandwich build to your specs.

The choices looked interesting; we were in the mood for something Italian, so we went with their Muffuletta. It's a mixture of salami, ham, and their olive salad. We added a bit of garlic and provolone cheese, and handed over our bag.

Part of the concept is that almost all the sandwiches cost the same - about $5.50. Adding chips and a drink bring the total to around $8; not cheap, but not outrageous either.

On this slow Sunday, we waited and waited. Unlike Subway or the other sandwich shops we've visited, Which Wich has one person making sandwiches, which slows things down considerably. The sandwiches are also made behind a tall counter, so you can't observe the work or the ingredients.

Our name was called, and we retrieved our sandwich. In an era of huge portions and too much food on the plate, Which Wich was a surprise... the sandwich was small, perhaps 5" long, and it wasn't exactly overstuffed with ingredients. The flavor was OK; a little too much olive salad, not enough meat and cheese.

All in all, we were disappointed. The place has promise, but the value side of the equation is off. When the market leader is offering a footlong sandwich stuffed with ingredients for $5, paying more for a sandwich that's less than half the size and with skimpy ingredients just doesn't make sense.

Which Wich: 6619 FM 1488, Magnolia, Texas 77354, 832-934-3034

Spicy Pickle, the fast casual sandwich spot from Denver, announced that its new Houston franchisee has signed a lease for their first site and is actively pursuing additional locations. The first site is scheduled to open in the spring of this year.

From their web site:

"Spicy Pickle restaurants serve high quality meats and fine Italian Artisan breads along with a wide choice of 10 different cheeses, 21 different toppings, and 15 proprietary spreads to create healthy and delicious panini and sub sandwiches with flavors from around the world. There are over 150,000 delicious sandwich combinations for you to create, along with 8 specialty panini sandwiches that have become favorites of our customers."

Nationwide, the company notes that development has slowed considerably for the Spicy Pickle chain in the United States, but some expansion possibilities continue to exist. Bank financing for new franchise opportunities is simply not available in the current climate, and expansion will continue to be limited until capital becomes more readily available.

Many of our friends who live ITL (Inside The Loop, a Houston term for the part of town inside I-610) maintain that there's nothing OTL (Outside the Loop) worth the drive. In our experience, they couldn't be more wrong.

We'd been hearing good buzz about a small cafe that had opened in a strip center at the far northwest corner of the Woodlands, and finally got a chance to check 'em out last night.

Eden Cafe is a small family owned establishment that serves a wide variety of cuisine. They're serious about variety: They have daily specials that are based on a specific cuisine. Tex-Mex Tuesdays, Italian Wednesdays, Comfort Food Thursdays, and Seafood Fridays (the day we visited.)

I ordered one of the specials - blackened tilapia. It was a beautiful tilapia filet expertly prepared, tender, moist, and nicely spicy. The sides were ver good as well: A mild Greek salad with plenty of feta, and a scoop of sweet potato casserole, rich, earthy, and loaded with nuts.

We also sampled their chicken-fried chicken, which was superb. Very moist, hand-breaded with a light, crispy breading, it was accompanied by a grilled squash/zucchini side that was delicious.

Another winner was the Pasta Marsala. A large serving of penne pasta with plenty of grilled chicken, mushrooms, squash, and a rich marsala wine sauce.

Prices are surprisingly modest. There's nothing on the menu over $13.

The restaurant was packed on Friday night, but the service was still friendly and professional. The owner, Ulises Larramendi, was greeting guests (many of whom were obviously regulars) and making sure things were flowing smoothly.

Browsing the menu, we discovered that Eden Cafe also has a full breakfast menu on Friday and Saturday ('till 3pm on Saturday.) They're closed Sunday and Monday.

Eden Cafe is a winner. It's a comfortable, casual cafe that serves very well-executed food. It's a worn phrase, but there's really something for everyone.

For those coming from ITL, it's a bit of a hike, but we think it's worth it. There are hundreds of small, family run cafes in Houston, but we've yet to find one that offers such a wide variety of food that is so expertly prepared.

We'll be back.

Eden Cafe: 33418 Egypt Lane, Suite 16, Magnolia, 77354, 832-934-2800,

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