Molto Italiano at Sabetta Cafe & Wine Bar

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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
A new restaurant has stepped up to the plate at 2411 S. Shepherd, the former location of Crostini and -- more recently -- the ill-fated Cafe Zol. Sabetta Cafe & Wine Bar, the creation of Chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio and wife Donna, opened this week. Sabetta was the name of his late mother, who handed down most of the restaurant's recipes.

The chef, who resigned from Simposio Ristorante in December 2009 in a high-profile departure after only three months, has worked diligently over the past four months to create a restaurant that would be authentic enough to please his mother and grandmother. The son of Italian immigrants to America, it was very important for Palazzo-Giorgio that the menu and recipes stay true to their Italian roots.

According to Palazzo-Giorgio, every single one of the items on the savory menu was created straight from his grandmother's recipes. The only dishes he's changed up are on the sweet side, for example, the toothsome semolina cake that he's drizzled with housemade rosemary syrup and serves alongside a not-too-sweet scoop of gelato from Gelato Blue, or the astonishingly light ricotta cheesecake with a delectable crust made only of toasted almonds, sugar and butter, served with a pillowy heap of warm, pan-roasted berries.

The desserts, in fact, may have been the best dishes on the compact menu at last night's media dinner. I have a hard time recalling desserts that have surprised me more with their casual yet inspired updates on traditional favorites. They didn't overwhelm with sweetness and were the ideal ending to a somewhat heavy meal.

That's not to say the rest of the food was bad, however. In fact, the hatchling Sabetta may just be serving up the best sausage and peppers in town.

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Sabetta's housemade sausage and peppers.
Served as one of roughly a dozen antipasti, the housemade sausage is made with fat chunks of pork and -- thankfully -- very little fennel, with no casing but with a lot of kick. The portion was roughly the size of a human hand, served on a bed of sweet sauteed peppers and onions. For only $7, this was not only the hit of the evening but one of the least expensive items on the menu. My dining companion, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, couldn't stop comparing it to the delicious food in Little Italy: "This tastes exactly like street festival food from the Feast of San Gennaro," he happily enthused.

The antipasti dishes are deliberately portioned, as are the primi and secondi dishes on the menu, to allow diners to work their way through the menu without getting too full -- an Italian version of tapas, in a way -- and priced accordingly. Our other favorite from the antipasti menu was a large bowl of what looked like shrimp and grits: grilled pancetta shrimp on a bed of butternut squash polenta with fried sage leaves. It's Palazzo-Giorgio's spin on the dish that's quickly becoming omnipresent around town, and a welcome change from heavily buttered grits.

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Oriecchiete with broccoli rabe and sausage.
On the primi side, gracefully turned oriecchiete served with sauteed broccoli rabe and some more of the wonderful housemade sausage were a pleasant change from more typical pastas summarily drenched in sauce. Palazzo-Giorgio makes most of his pastas in-house (minus the ones that require an extruder), and the delicate agnoletti filled with sheep's milk ricotta and spinach showcased his talent in this area without being too showy.

Of the secondi selection, the striped bass served with a slightly crispy skin over a silky puree of potatoes and pan-roasted fennel made me wonder why more fish dishes aren't served this way. Sadly, the delicious-sounding fegato alla venezia (liver) was overcooked and tough, while the bone-in chicken was as tender as advertised but covered in an overly sweet lacquer that masked any taste the roasted chicken possessed on its own.

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All of this was saved by the remarkable desserts, of course. I have half a mind to ride my bike back up to Sabetta this evening for another slice of ricotta cheesecake and a glass of wine. The wine list, like the menu, is very reasonably priced, with every wine available by the glass. This only makes sense, as Sabetta is billed as both a cafe and a wine bar, after all.

And with Sabetta's cozy, mahogany bar that was salvaged from Shamrock Hotel prior to demolition, a decidedly unstuffy interior and a glorious patio, I can see myself doing a lot of biking and desserting at Sabetta this summer. At least the bike ride will burn off some of those cheesecake calories, right?

Sabetta Cafe & Wine Bar is currently only open for dinner starting at 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but will open for lunch soon.

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