100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 1, Pastiera di Mare con Granchio e Gamberi at Ciao Bello
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photo by Max Burkhalter This dish is so good, it got its own photo shoot.
I first ate this dish back in August of 2013, and it's been on my mind -- and my list -- ever since.
On August 7, I attended the second in a series of regional Italian cuisine dinners hosted by Tony Vallone at Ciao Bello. The first one had been focused on the food of Sicily, but the one I went to was about Naples, a region Jeremy Parzen, our wine writer and a friend of Vallone's, tells me is very close to the restaurateur's heart. And boy, did Vallone's passion show in the food.
The meal was prepared by Bobby Matos, executive chef at Ciao Bello, whose name I firmly believe needs to be mentioned in the same sentences as Chris Shepherd, Hugo Ortega and Marco Wiles as making some of the best, most praiseworthy food in Houston. The cuisine of Ciao Bello isn't pushing boundaries, as it is at Oxheart, The Pass or Uchi, but it is, in my opinion, some of the most immensely satisfying food in Houston.
Which brings me to the best thing I've eaten here all year, prepared with skill and restraint by chef Matos: the Pastiera.
Pastiera is a traditional Neapolitan dish, often served sweet instead of savory for the Easter holiday. Online searches haven't revealed much to me about savory versions of the dish, though many of them include pasta, eggs and cheese in what amounts to a sort of casserole. This dish is not like that.
It's fluffy enough to equate it with a soufflé -- all airy eggs with a delicate jiggle once it's been baked. The eggs are mixed with mascarpone cheese, which is essentially more-acidic clotted cream, for a combination that is simultaneously light as air and intensely rich. Add to that chunks of crab meat and shrimp and a crust that's been slightly browned in the oven, and the result is a dish that I keep finding myself explaining by saying, simply, "You just have to taste it."
The pastiera is prepared in a large pan and served by the slice. Preparing it is a long, delicate process, so it was intended to be a one-time thing, served only at the Neapolitan dinner, then shelved with however many other amazing recipes haunt Tony Vallone's kitchens. I let it slip to him a while back that I wanted to write about the dish. The only problem, I said, is that I couldn't write about something that no one could get. I couldn't tell people how amazing this food is, then in the next sentence reveal they wouldn't get to eat it. Vallone agreed that would be unfair, and now (probably to Matos's chagrin), the pastiera is on the menu at Ciao Bello.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg Here's the original pastiera I fell in love with in August.
I recently went to Ciao Bello and ate it again for the first time in eight months. It was just as incredible as I remembered. It's served piping hot, steam oozing out of the crevices between chunks of shrimp and egg. There's a drizzle of creamy pesto on top--much needed acid to cut through the richness of the cheese and seafood. It's a masterpiece of a dish, labor-intensive to prepare but gloriously simple in its high-quality ingredients.
Matos told me that his mother had recently been to Ciao Bello and tried the pastiera. Like I had been, she'd been wowed. You will be, too.
And lest you think choosing an Italian dish as the number one item in Houston is to ignore the diversity this city has to offer, let me stop you there. It contains seafood you can find in the gulf; Italian sensibilities brought to Galveston by immigrants more than 100 years ago; the legendary name Tony Vallone behind it, as well as up-and-comer Bobby Matos; and it's one of the first things I ate upon my welcome to this great city.
So now, when I think of Houston, a little part of me thinks of pastiera. And then I get hungry.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.