In the last several days, for some reason, I’ve had a few meals in Italian-themed restaurants. First, the new, self-proclaimed Italian-American B.B. Italia in the former longtime home of Carmelo’s on the west side, then the original Carrabba’s on Kirby, which I hadn’t visited in at least a couple of years, and yesterday, Nundini Chef’s Table that is set gloomily in the midst of a windowless retail space. The bread at B.B. Italia, a small, noticeably fresh, somewhat spherical boule, was fairly mediocre, not nearly as good as the breads later at the original Carrabba’s and Nundini. And, the food, too, at B.B. Italia was not nearly as tasty, which is an understatement.
It’s not surprising that the bread at Carrabba’s was better than at B.B. Italia. Proprietor Johnny Carrabba bought Common Bond, the city’s best commercial baker, back in 2016. At lunch at Carrabba’s, the basket of very crusty white bread – that tasted like it was probably even leftover from the previous night’s service – and a brown roll both did excellent work sopping up the olive oil and dipping sauce and then leftover tomato sauce from my pasta dish. The soft squares of the pre-pranzo focaccia at Nundini, if not tasting of coming from Common Bond, was also enjoyable, and better.
Though the bread at B.B. Italia might have been disappointing, I didn’t realize right away that it would be a harbinger for the rest of the meal. That was quick to prove true with the simple Caesar salad that was basically just cut up romaine lettuce, heavily white and pale green, in a straightforward dressing dotted with lame, unevenly and often barely cooked croutons – not helped by the bread, of course. It wasn’t bad, but measured up poorly to about any version of the salad I’ve had in memory. The pasta dish I ordered was necessarily better, but also below-par of what you would expect at a restaurant, at least what I would expect.
It was the Grandma’s Ravioli, ravioli filled oddly with short rib stuffing, and served with what is described as mushroom Marsala ragù. Though the pasta shell was actually pretty decent, the filling of minced beef and, more so, the sauce, a thin bit of Marsala wine with mushrooms about, not a ragù at all, tasted discordant to me and made the dish much less than the sum of its parts. Plentiful grated Parmesan (or maybe it was Parmigiano) could not help too much. The sauce tasted to be, basically, just quickly cooked cheap Marsala. My dining companion also had a pasta dish, ravioli topped with a pesto. That pesto was an overly liquid-y version that tasted almost solely of basil; the pine nuts and taste of cheese was entirely missing. We agreed that their pesto tasted nothing like that made in its home of Liguria or in the neighboring regions where it is also found; also, a far cry than what I make at home with a mortar and pestle. It was also not nearly well-done as the version I just had with similarly properly prepared potato gnocchi Nundini, which was appropriately more viscous and richer, more flavorful with evident pine nuts and cheese in the mix.
B.B. Italia seems to be playing at Italian-American food. Both the dishes and the concept seemed to be artifice to me. What I experienced there was the antithesis of soulful food. None of this would have mattered too much at B.B. Italia if the food was very good, or good, but it was not. It was a far cry that the food that I had at Carrabba’s on Kirby the other day. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that Carrabba’s on Kirby and Voss – not the chain outposts, of course – have long been judicious and often eminently enjoyable destinations for well-made, sometimes upscale Italian-American cooking with a local bent. I had ravioli at Carrabba’s, too. It was far better.
I have to state that I found the name of Grandma’s Ravioli for what I ordered at B.B. Italia as rather ridiculous, even pandering, as it alludes to the fact that it might have been something a typical Italian-American matriarch might have regularly cooked for the Sunday lunch. Not so. The ravioli dishes cooked by the Italian-Americans here were ricotta-stuffed and served in a tomato sauce. No one cooked ravioli that with minced beef short ribs. This is just made up. Then came the ravioli filled with ground meat that were long a staple at Italian-American restaurants. A well-made version of this, featuring distinctively large rectangle of pasta, is what I had at Carrabba’s.
And there were other disconcerting signs at B.B. Italia, in addition to the not-so-great food. Service, though friendly, was not terribly professional. The service specifically at the bar, we had wine sold to us as 9-ounces that looked and drank very suspiciously like 6-ounce pours in every other establishment in the city – I usually order a few glasses of wine out each week. Thinking wine, the restaurant sports a very limited and largely uninteresting wine list for wine list, but which of the three of the wines we ordered were out that night. I can’t recall that I’ve ever been to a restaurant where a trio of the wines were not available; a very high percentage for B.B. Italia.
As disappointing as the visit to B.B. Italia was, I feel the need to give it at least another try. It had only been open for a month or so, and drawing a final judgement so quickly is not fair and possibly not accurate. And, with as the owners also have a steakhouse, I have hope that the meat preparations are much better than the couple of dishes that I had.
Carrabba’s, The Original
3115 Kirby (between W. Alabama and Richmond), 77098, (713) 522-3131
1399 S. Voss (at Woodway), 77057, (713) 468-0868
Nundini Chef’s Table
500 N. Shepherd (north of I-10), 77007, (713) 861-6331
A tasty version of ravioli, at Carrabba's on Kirby, showered with plentiful Parmigiano.