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New New Italian Options in Austin, Which Ones Stack Up?

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With all the new Italian places going in here, which ones are worth frequenting? I'm always on the lookout for a good Italian place, but most of the new Italian restaurants leave me non-plussed.

Stortini, Gypsy, Botticelli's, Primizie, Cannoli Joe's, Mandola's Italian Market, Ristorante Bellissimo

Which one's are worth trying out?

I for one, would not be interested in Cannoli Joe's, won't be back to Mandola's or Gypsy, would go back to Primizie, and haven't tried Bellissimmo or Botticelli's or Stortini.

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  1. Did you try doing a search?

    Bellissimo:
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/432459

    Botticelli's:
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/413694

    Stortini:
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/41623...

    Since you don't regularly review restaurants here, perhaps you could share what it is that you love about Primizie, the new cafe opened by a husband-and-wife catering and food-service company. You'll find that there's a wide range of opinions on this board about what constitutes a "good Italian place." From what I've seen in print and on their website, Primizie's menu and approach don't really intrigue me. Of course, I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to Italian regional foods. So far, the only places that even come close to "good Italian," for me, have been Enoteca/Vespaio and the pre-dumbed-down Cibo. Hog Island Deli does good East-Coast-style Italian-American sandwiches, like the Paisano and the meatball hoagie.

    17 Replies
    1. re: MPH

      Thanks MPH, the first link definitely helps. The other two threads are not exactly helping me make my decision on whether or not to try and don't really seem to be about the food at those places.

      What I'd really like is a Reale's-level good honest Italian food that doesn't try too hard in my hood (south lamar). Guess I'll check out Stortini's and Botticelli's. On the East Coast its easy to find a good Italian joint in almost every neighborhood, but the Italian places here leave a lot to be desired. You have to go very fine dining/upscale in order to get good Italian in Austin, IMHO.

      1. re: shanntastic

        If you're looking for an old school[est.1976]Italian joint I would recommed Al Johns on Oltorf.It's primarily a pizza joint but they offer a variety of Italian based sandwiches as well.I get the Al John [a foot or so long slab of house baked bread stuffed with Ham,Salami,Italian Dressing,Provolone,Onions,Lettuce and Tomato].I like it with warm bread and cold fillings.The lasagna is good...I bit into an entire clove of garlic once...which I loved.This is a redsauce style Italian,very homey and run by a local family who bought it from the founder a few years back.The OG who started it was a complete character from Brooklyn;Gino....slicked back hair,omnipresent sunglasses and a hopped up Buick Riviera with black windows parked askew outside.He emanated cool.The family of new-ish owners did not drop the ball or change the recipes.

        1. re: scrumptiouschef

          Thanks scrumptiouschef, that sounds very promising indeed. :)

          1. re: shanntastic

            I grew up in the northeast and LOVE the italian I grew up on there and in Syracuse, where I went to college. For east coast italian -- red gravy sort of place, I find that only Ciola's in lakeway fits the bill. There are other places that serve good food but if you want to find a reasonably priced place that specializes in red sauce items, check it out. I would be interested to hear your impressions when you go. BTW -- whenever I travel to Boston, NYC or Chicago, sampling east coast italian is the first thing on my to-do list b/c I miss it so much!

          2. re: scrumptiouschef

            It's been a very long time since I've lived anywhere near Aljon's (and Gino was still the owner then), but I do recall their calzones being incredibly delicious (and enormous). It's more than just a folded-over pizza. They combine several cheeses (including ricotta) to create a really tasty filling. I usually got mine stuffed with sausage and mushroom.

            1. re: verily

              I'm trying to put people's recommendations (of Ciola's, for example) in context. Any chance that chowhounds can elaborate on what they mean by a good red-sauce joint? What, specifically, makes it good to you? Or do you just mean the presence of items like eggplant parm? It might even help to mention, in the context of this local discussion, a specific place on the East Coast which was the epitome, to each 'hound, of red sauce East-Coast Italian-American food. Kirelerya mentioned general places in Syracuse and the "Northeast," though Syracuse is not quite the East Coast.

              I lived on the East Coast (Boston and Brooklyn) for almost as long as I've lived in Texas, and I've got to say that most local Italian-American places that are touted as "East-Coast style" remind me of college pizza joints, at best, and chain restaurants, at worst.

              I've only visited once so far, but my experience with Reale's echoed luggage512's:

              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/43604...

              1. re: MPH

                I've never been to NYC, Boston, or Italy, so I'm sort of a plebe in the world of Italian food. That being said, I know what I like. I also have Al Jon's experience, as this was the pizza place nearest my work that we'd pick up from for over a year.

                Al Jon's isn't bad; I like it a lot. But to this prole's tastes (and discussing pizza joints that are in the area only), their pizza is not as good as Homeslice (which you don't like), and is probably worse than Yaghi's and Southside Pies, and possibly slightly worse than Milano's. It tends towards a certain thinness in the center that gives way to the sauce and becomes overly mushy (and to me, unappetizing). It doesn't do as poorly as Saccone's on this front, but in the South Austin area it ranks tied for 4th on my pizza list (assuming I leave out Enoteca). Now, some folks who lived in NYC for a thousand years will nail me and say it is exactly like Ronald Bargo's Super-Authenic Pizza Shack in the Bronx or Newark or something, and I obviously don't know authentic NY/NJ pizza; I can't argue. I'm not programmed that way -- I like what tastes good, not what reminds me of good times in another city.

                As for sandwiches, if you're in the area, I'd truck down to El Meson's glorious Road To Nowhere and get a sandwich at Belladonna. They have many good options; chief amongst them in my opinion is their pretty darn good working-man's Muffaletta sandwich.

                I haven't had the Al Jon's calzone, so I have no comment on that front.

                1. re: tom in austin

                  Thanks, tom in austin. Your post helps put things into context. I like what tastes good to me, too—but what tastes good to each of us is informed by our past experiences. Taste is subjective, but that doesn’t mean that our ideas of deliciousness develop in a vacuum. That's especially true of many of us chowhounds, who are here, in part, to learn more about the cultures, traditions, and origins of all sorts of foods. Since many people are using "East Coast style" as an adjective in this thread, I'm hoping to figure out what this means to those who describe the food that way, particularly in regards to Italian restaurants like Ciola's and Reale's. After all, the East Coast also has some pretty bad Italian restaurants.

                  Aside from Enoteca Vespaio, I've only really liked the pizza at Salvation. Even that was only good the first time; things had gone downhill by my next visit. Saccone's, Home Slice, Brick Oven on 35th, Cipollina, and Southside Flying Pizza didn't do it for me, for various reasons. (My past reviews are all on the board somewhere.)

                  I've tried Al John's subs but not the pizza or calzones:

                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/37890...

                  I haven't tried the sandwiches at Belladonna, but I'll keep them in mind.

                2. re: MPH

                  I am actually from NH, and spent a lot of weekends during my childhood going to Boston to visit my dad's large Italian family. And if you are not familiar, Syracuse has a very strong Italian community. First, as you mention, just having some familiar favorites on the menu is a start, but that is not why I like Ciola's. And for the record, my Silician grandmother's eggplant parm has made me wary to order it anywhere, most of it is bitter, burned, heavy and just plain bad. As for the epitome of east coast italian, the best meal I ever had was in this hole in the wall in Hoboken, NJ. I will try to get the name from my Italian friend that dragged me there. I think the reason I like Ciola's is because they make real gravy -- the sauce has a definite depth of flavor that reminds me of home. That said, is this place as good as many joints in Boston or NYC? Frankly, no, but it is the best that Austin has to offer for this type of food. I would be very curious to hear your take, if you try it. I also thought Reale's was a big disappointment, fyi.

                  1. re: kirelerya

                    Thanks, kirelerya. That's very helpful. Like you, I've been figuratively burned many times by Italian restaurants in town. You've made me curious about Ciola's, despite the bad experiences that I've had with Italian food west of Mopac (like the overrated Siena, which serves "Tuscan" food as imagined by the team behind the local Brick-Oven chain). I'll definitely post a report when I get a chance to check out Ciola's.

                    Best,
                    MPH

                    1. re: kirelerya

                      Former Yankee here. Raised in Essex Co., NJ, and would love a go-to Italian joint, big on the food, ambiance/setting whatever. The closest experience has been Reale's for "food" and Saccone's for pizza. And I like the cold subs at Delaware Subs, but I haven't tried Hog Island (yet, but I'm looking forward to this new location on 183!)

                      Kirelerya, I'm interested to hear about your hole in the wall restaurant in Hoboken because I used to live there. Was it Leo's GrandeVous, with the shrine to Frank, the bread served on paper plates, the large curving white Formica bar, and the surly waitstaff? I loved that place!

                      I will definitely try out Ciola's!

                      re: Syracuse being East Coast: Syracuse is a city in NY, which is located on the eastern coast of the US, ergo by transitive use of equality, Syracuse is East Coast, even if it is 100 miles inland.

                      1. re: Hsien_Ko

                        Hsien_Ko, when you say that "by transitive use of equality, Syracuse is East Coast, even if it is 100 miles inland," you remind me of some prospective employers who tried to sell me the same bill of goods. ;-) By the same logic, Rochester, Buffalo, and Oswego are "East Coast," too, even though they are closer to the great lakes than they are to the Atlantic. I believe some consider upstate New York part of the Rust Belt, though the boundaries of that, too, are debatable.

                        In terms of Austin's take on Italian-American food, would you mind sharing what you've enjoyed at Reale's? You said above that you like their "food” in a context that suggests you don’t really like their pizza. What are your favorite choices on the Reale's menu? What do you avoid? Are you a regular customer? My own (single) experience there was poor, but maybe I missed out on some hidden gems.

                        1. re: MPH

                          First off, yes, I feel that Buffalo, Rochester and western NY is still NY, and therefore East Coast, even if they are closer to Ohio (which is not East Coast).

                          I go to Reale's occasionally, about once every other month. I'm due for another visit soon. We have a toddler, so our meals have been more of the bring-the-tray-to-the-table variety of late. Fancy stuff like "waitstaff" isn't a part of restaurant life for us lately.

                          Actually, DH and I ordered Reale's pizza recently and I thought it was pretty good. I'm afraid that I'm losing my taste, that I've been away too long to be an effective judge on this. Am I getting used to Austin pie or is it actually good? Truth be told, no pizza in Austin "sends me" like a good, plain Scotto's pie (Clifton, NJ), or even Ralph's pizza (Nutley, NJ) for that matter. There's something with the alchemy of crust, sauce, and cheese that is not attained here. I'll be back east for Thanksgiving, so I'll do some serious research and get some perspective.

                          I love the eggplant parmesean sandwich at Reale's. I think it has proper eggplant:sauce:cheese ratio. The eggplant is nicely sliced and the bread is perfectly toasted (granted, I am not of Italian origin so I have no grandmother's eggplant parmesean recipe to compare against). For me, an ideal lunch at Reale's is when a coworker and I split an eggplant parm sandwich and a Florentine calzone. At restaurants such as Reale's, I tend to crave the baked items, whereas when I go to a more upscale Italian restaurant (like Vespiao or Andiamo), I prefer fancy/unusual pasta dishes.

                          My husband will get cold subs there on occasion and likes them. While I love subs, I always want something warm when I'm there. I haven't yet sampled them.

                3. re: scrumptiouschef

                  Went to Reale's last night and it had to be one of the worst restaurants I've ever been to. Everything about it was awful -- plastic on the tables, cheesy decor, unprofessional staff (from our table, we could hear our waitress flirting -- giggling and screaming -- with everyone in the kitchen... talk about awkward), and food that I could easily make better at home. I think the spaghetti was Hill Country Faire brand. Salad was all iceberg lettuce. Breadsticks reminded me of Pillsbury dough that you just take out of the can, unravel, and bake. Very, very overpriced.

                  The best Italian I've had here is La Traviata.

                  1. re: heyhigirl

                    My last visit to Reales was a few years back when the waitress slung a hot pizza into the lap of my dining companion and BURST OUT LAUGHING.

                    Her laughter was short lived as I delivered an Adolph Rupp style harangue[channeling der Baron as though she were a point guard who'd just made a game destroying turnover] to her in front of the assembled and horrified throng of customers.

                    1. re: heyhigirl

                      THANK YOU!!! I always hear about how everyone loves Reale's and I just don't get it! It'd like Olive Garden to me.

                      I have yet to have Italian in Austin that I really feel is up to par. I have high standards though. I tend to compare it all to a now defunct place in Ft. Myers, FL where I used to get Lobster Picata and the best Caesar salad in the whole world.

                    2. re: scrumptiouschef

                      Went to Aljohns last night. Besides the incredibly odd decor and the sign saying BBQ at the bottom and the BBQ options being crossed off the menu with pen and the blaring sports and the one man show that was the proprietor, I didn't hate it.

                      We took our food to go. :)

                      We had the lasagna and the manicotti. It was decent. Totally worth the 7! bucks. Good cheeses, a little bland in the flavors, generous amounts of good but nothing special sauce. The bread was not salted enough. The salad was like something you'd find in a hospital cafeteria.

                      I'd totally go back for the equivalent of cheap Italian fast food with a couple of beers, and for another look at how crazy the whole place is. About the best thing I can say about it is that it blows Fazoli's out of the water. I still need to try Ciola's.

                4. I know that Mandola's has not recieved much love here but when I ate there recently for lunch it was wonderful. I had gnocchi with tomato sauce and a hunk of beef--I can't remmeber the name of the dish. It tasted like the slow-cooked meat sauce I make, using flank steak and a tomato paste base.
                  To give some background, I'm from Austin but my mother is an Italian-American from up north--so I grew up on Italian-American cooking, modified based on what's available here.
                  I am looking forward to trying Bellissimo because I've loved Andiamo's in the past (have not been in at least a year).

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: rusty_s

                    I had the gnocchi at Mandola's a while ago, and loved it also.

                  2. Planning on trying the Italian place on East 11th this weekend. Will report back if I do

                    1. I find the discussion above fascinating. Leaving aside the issue of college-football conferences, I think that there's a difference between the Northeast and the East Coast. To me, the "East Coast" is the D.C. to Boston megalopolis that includes some cities that don't touch the Atlantic Ocean (like Philadelphia) but definitely not upstate NY or western Pennsylvania. This take assumes that regional definitions are based on more than just geography (think of the factors that go into deciding where "West Texas" starts). My friends and family in both upstate NY and NYC seem to agree on this distinction between the Northeast and the East Coast. Some other posters on this thread obviously don't. This just goes to show you that opinions can vary a lot on this board, and that even a term whose meaning can seem quite obvious, like "East-Coast-style Italian," can mean different things to different people.

                      To help define how I conceive of East-Coast-style Italian-American food, here are links to four of my old favorites in Brooklyn, Providence, and Boston:

                      http://www.totonnos.com/MenuHome.html

                      http://www.angelosonthehill.com/menup...

                      http://www.anticofornoboston.com/dinn...

                      http://www.marcoboston.com/menu/1

                      And here's a link to the website of Ciola's in Lakeway:

                      http://www.ciolas.com/ciolas/

                      I tried Ciola's recently with a group of non-adventurous out-of-town visitors who asked me to decide on dinner options. (That always means that we go to whatever is next on my list of places to try.) Let me just say that I can see why people like Ciola's. The restaurant offers comfortable red faux-leather booths and friendly service, in an Italian-dinner-club-like environment. Music of the sort from the "Big Night" soundtrack plays constantly in the background. The location is convenient—if you already live in Lakeway. The homogeneous suburban crowd is both affluent and casual; kids are welcome; the management is affable. Some of my guests felt like they were on familiar territory, which was important to them. Ciola's wasn't delicious to me, however, even though I crave good East-Coast-style Italian-American food as much as the next person. I'll share a report on what I personally sampled of our large group's order.

                      Appetizers:

                      Calamari fritti—The fried squid (rings only) seemed to be bad frozen-product. The medium-thick batter was salty but otherwise flavorless. The calamari themselves were limp. A sweet basil mayo and their red "marinara" sauce came on the side. Their tomato sauce is made from pureed canned tomatoes and is medium-thick in consistency; however, it tastes quick-cooked rather than slow-simmered. It's the slow simmering, though, that makes an Italian sauce's simple flavors coalesce. While Ciola's sauce had some garlic and basil flavoring, there wasn't enough for me. To my palate, it also needed more olive oil. The overall conception seemed a bit too much like chunky-style Ragu for my liking. This was unfortunate, since the sauce came with everything except the fettucine alfredo, the caprese, and the desserts.

                      Mozzarella fritti—These very large bricks of fried cheese were extremely soft and liquidy inside; the breading, on the other hand, was very dark, suggesting that they had been over-fried. The almost grayish-white cheese reminded me of standard-supermarket-quality mozzarella with an extremely high water-content. Their menu states that these mozzarella sticks (or rather, bricks) are hand-breaded. This made me wonder if their calamari were breaded on site, since this wasn't specifically stated in their respective description. The fried mozzarella came with more red sauce on the side.

                      Insalata caprese—They did use fresh mozzarella for this salad, but it wasn't of good quality. I can find better at Whole Foods or Central Market. The Roma tomatoes were flavorless; some basil leaves also adorned the plate. The mozzarella and tomatoes were drizzled with a nondescript balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was not topped with olive oil, though their menu states that it usually is part of the dish.

                      Bread basket:

                      I read somewhere that they make their own breadsticks, but these hard, crunchy ones tasted like they came out of a bag to me. Their focaccia was slightly oily and chewy. It was the better of the two options. To put it in context, though, the "Bravo! Cucina Italiana" chain restaurant has better-tasting focaccia bread. The herbed olive oil at Ciola's was more of a very pale yellow than green in color. It looked like "light" olive oil such as you'd find in a standard-supermarket aisle, with some pre-grated parmesan, dried herbs, and black pepper mixed in to disguise the lack of flavor.

                      Main courses:

                      Fettucine alfredo—The oily butter-cream-parmesan sauce had separated, so it lacked the usual smooth, creamy texture. The fettucine were overcooked. This dish was not good, except perhaps as bland pasta for children.

                      "Veal parmagiana"—A tough, overcooked veal cutlet was topped with that gray-colored cheap mozzarella and tons of sweet sauce. Real parmigiano reggiano was not discernible. The veal was served on top of overcooked spaghetti topped with more red sauce. Fresh, thin-pounded veal cutlets cook in a matter of minutes; this one was dark brown from frying for too long and/or at too high a temperature. It required sawing and/or gnawing to chew it. If you're going to ruin a fresh veal cutlet, you may as well just use the frozen pre-breaded hockey-pucks sold by Sysco Food Services. I'm not certain that Ciola's doesn't do just that.

                      Manicotti al forno—This classic baked red-sauce pasta dish was unbearable, unless you like sweet sauce over sweet ricotta cheese, topped with runny mozzarella. The flavor was extremely one-dimensional. In addition, the texture of the supposedly housemade manicotti was indistinguishable in the large mound of cheese. This dish looked and tasted like the top had been slid off of a chain-style extra-cheese pizza. Note: The "food critic" Dale Rice loves Ciola's lasagna because it has finely crumbled meatballs, sausage, pepperoni, and hard-boiled eggs in it. Given what a sort of meatless version (the manicotti) tasted like to me, I am doubtful that all those additons could salvage the lasagna.

                      Desserts:

                      Cannoli—These were horrible. The filling looked like gray mashed potatoes. The texture was sandy and bore no resemblance to fresh ricotta. I can't figure out how they produced this god-awful mess, unless they resorted to some sort of powdered cannoli-filling. Or maybe they made a gritty, powdered-sugar-heavy white frosting instead. Throwing a few pistachios on top did nothing to help. They do not make their own pastry shells.

                      Chocolate "martini"—This was a light chocolate mousse, made with chopped nuts, that was served in a martini glass, the top of which had been "sealed" with a thin layer of hardened chocolate and then drizzled with a raspberry sauce. That sounded pretty good to me, but Ciola's mousse itself doesn't resemble this one:

                      http://www.elise.com/recipes/archives...

                      Instead, the color, texture, and flavor of the "mousse" reminded me of the interior of a Three Musketeers bar. I would not order this again, although I was told by a server that it's one of their best desserts.

                      I had also asked about the "housemade" spumoni, which several media rags have singled out for praise. Their "family heirloom" recipe involves the use of Blue Bell ice cream for the four layers (pistachio, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry), between which they simply add liqueurs, glacéed fruits, and chopped pistachios. I decided to pass.

                      Ciola's does remind me of mediocre red-sauce Italian served at restaurants on the East Coast, like the Rhode-Island-based chain Chelo's, and also at many "Italian" national-chain restaurants. It seems that it's harder than it should be to find Italian-American cooking that goes above and beyond the use of overly sweet, quick-cooked tomato sauce; overdone pasta; and mountains of cheap cheese. It might be that Ciola's is in part capitulating to what Austin diners seem to want. For example, the fennel salad discussed in mass-media reviews (from 2002) is no longer on the menu.

                      It's also always possible that different 'hounds will love this place, or that I missed all the hidden gems. Though our group covered a good bit of the menu, this report is based on just one visit. Although I'm glad I tried Ciola's, I'm afraid that I won't be making the drive out there from Austin again.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: MPH

                        MPH, do you ever just stay home and eat in? :-)

                        1. re: TAF

                          TAF, I probably eat out less than 'hounds who go out for lunch every day of the work week. And I do sometimes stay home and eat in. Really! But I'll understand if you find it hard to believe me. :-)

                          I recently tried Primizie, which was mentioned earlier in this thread. It's located on the ground floor of a big brick building that also houses a bank, on the same side of East 11th as Ben's Longbranch. As I recall, the place is a bit spare, with a poured-concrete floor and large windows facing the street. There are a bunch of small (formica?) tables in rows around the room. At the front, there is a pastry case, a cashier's counter, and a bar, all separating the dining area from the kitchen.

                          The times that I stopped by, in the mid-to-late afternoon, there was practically nobody else eating there, although there was some evidence that tables had been used for a couple of late lunches. The people working there were friendly, but some seemed to lack a deep knowledge of the menu.

                          Appetizers sampled:

                          "Fritto Misto di Stagione"—According to the menu, this usually comes with "Primizie bread," fried Gulf shrimp, calamari, artichoke hearts, and zucchini rounds. When I tried it, the assortment also included unique touches like a cross-section of lemon, a thin layer of purple onion skin, and sweet-potato rounds, all fried. The fried shrimp were very flavorful and of good-quality, in addition to being well executed; the calamari may have been slightly less tasty on their own, but were still good. [This part of the dish was noticeably better than the fried calamari sampled at Ciola's.] The salty batter was applied with not too heavy a hand, though perhaps it wasn't done super-lightly, either. The "citrus basil aioli" that came on the side was not great. It had a chalky, cheesy residue and tasted too much of sweet basil (with no garlic flavor). Despite this, their fritto misto was an interesting take on the classic dish. It was also the best appetizer, as well as the best non-dessert item that I sampled.

                          "Verdure Assortite Primizie"—Or, an assortment "of the season's grilled roasted & citrus marinated vegetables." That day, the dish consisted of lightly dressed (only with olive oil) crispy green beans, thin rings of onion, roasted sun-dried tomatoes, and grilled eggplant. The sun-dried tomatoes, with their concentrated flavor, were among the more-appealing vegetable offerings, along with the grilled eggplant, especially the blackened pieces. With this dish, however, I ran into one of the less-appealing aspects of Primizie's offerings. Their food tastes like healthy Italianate food such as you'd get from a catering company [which is what they are] or a "gourmet" sandwich shop. What it doesn't taste like is really good Italian food. As seasoning for the vegetable antipasti, for example, there was no garlic, no hot pepper (flakes or otherwise), no full-bodied olive oil. They do use some olive oil, but it's thin and acidic, with very faint olive taste. [At least the oil's fairly green, unlike that yellow one that they served at Ciola's.] Most people would be happy to get something that tasted like this from the prepared-foods section of Whole Foods or Central Market. In other words, it's an inoffensive, relatively light, quick meal. But I expect more from Italian restaurants.

                          "Bruschetta Barbabietola al Caprino"—This is a complex name for thin toasts smeared with goat cheese [Pure Luck chèvre] and then topped with roasted and cubed red and golden beets that are supposedly marinated with arugula and mint. The bruschetta were served over slightly-wilted greens that looked like they came from a baby-spinach salad mix. I wondered if they'd wilted due to the warmth of the toast. The beets had decent texture, though I couldn't taste much of a marinade. The goat cheese was fine. The bread was diagonally sliced from a baguette that was inoffensive-tasting under all the toppings, though it wasn't toasted enough (and wasn't good on its own). The individual components of this appetizer did not combine to elevate this dish into something special. The flavors were unspectacular, even to those of us who love beets in all their forms.

                          "Antipasti Misto"—This plate came with Parma prosciutto, "salame felino," more blackened house-dried tomato and grilled eggplant slices, plus Bel Paese cheese. The prosciutto was salty and was served practically shredded at the edges and more thickly sliced than I prefer. It was also lacking in flavor and was very soft, with dry edges. The peppery, greasy salami tasted like what you'd get at Mandola's. I don't mean that as a compliment. I imagine that they served some standard brand like Citterio. You can put together a better version of this dish by shopping at the better spots in town for Italian charcuterie.

                          Pastas sampled:

                          "Rigatoni alla Salsicca e Pepperonata"—This was supposed to be a fennel-sausage sugo with roasted sweet peppers, basil, and pecorino romano. It tasted like overcooked rigatoni in a sweet tomato sauce [though it was less sweet than Ciola's sauce]. I really should say rigatononi: These were huge. The very sweet sausage had no discernible fennel flavor. The peppers were probably the best part, though they were quite sweet. There are also better jarred versions available at Italian-specialty stores.

                          "Tagliatelle alla Bolognese"–Described on the menu as a "ragu of mushrooms, Italian sausage, beef sirloin, red wine, parsley, sage & parmigiano," this dish is nothing like the better versions of the sauce for which Bologna is famous. Italian sauces are simple, made with only the best ingredients, and cooked very slowly to bring out depth of flavor. Primizie's bolognese tasted, again, like a quick-cooked, sweet meat-based sauce over overcooked tagliatelle. The kitchen wasn't too bad about over-saucing the pasta: There was no deep pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl. But I'm very particular about the classic Italian sauces. I thought this one was fairly bad. Its bitter, burnt taste must have resulted either from over-browning the garlic or using cheap, jarred garlic pieces instead of fresh. Both pasta dishes were served with a kind of zesty lavash-like flat bread.

                          Desserts sampled:

                          Tiramisu—The top half was light cream; the bottom half consisted of chocolate cream sandwiched between thin layers of cake. At first the dessert didn't seem to be infused with espresso/liqueur, but the bottom half had indeed soaked up these flavors. This was just another run-of-the-mill tiramisu.

                          Apple crostada—The texture of the sweet pastry was so crumbly that it almost looked like the cookie dough for a very large pecan sandy. It was also practically an inch thick; plus, they seemed to have used a lot of butter in it. The apple filling was okay; the butterscotch sauce was decent. This was a lumpy, unusual, but oddly compelling dessert—mainly due to the texture and flavor of the pastry.

                          Bitter-chocolate almond torte—The filling was whipped and light, and this actually had decent dark-chocolate flavor. It wasn't sweet, either, but bittersweet, as advertised. The almonds in the filling ranged from very finely-chopped to almost whole. It wasn't exactly a torta Caprese, nor was it as good as the chestnut cake once offered at Cibo. Yet I scarfed down the whole slice and made a mental note to order it again. Twill, you might want to sample some of their chocolate offerings as part of your quest.

                          .........................................................................................................................

                          The apple and chocolate pastries were the best parts of my meals at Primizie. Apparently, they have a separate pastry chef who is doing some interesting things. The fritto misto of seafood was the best of the appetizers. Although the other appetizers weren't all terrible, they weren't very good, either. Overall, the pastas and most of the appetizers seemed like what I'd get at someplace like the Mövenpick Marché or the Whole Foods Italian-food station. In other words, it tasted more like food prepared by the catering departments of upscale-cafeteria chains and grocery stores than the menu selections at our better local Italian restaurants.

                          Primizie seems to specialize in cooking foods quickly and blandly, though with better ingredients than is often the norm. Italian airport cafeterias quick-cook better pasta, but that's more than we can expect here. In Austin, Italian take-out shops have sprung up like mushrooms after a long rain to cater to a desired niche of the market. The generally high quality of the ingredients makes Primizie's food better, in my opinion, than Mandola's (but then again, I hate that place, so this is faint praise). As Italian cuisine, however, there is something lacking, in terms of technique and approach.

                          So, my hopes are dashed of finding a new source of the "best Italian" in town. But I'll occasionally return to Primizie for some of their "gourmet" fast-food, like the fritto misto and the desserts.

                          1. re: MPH

                            As usual, I'm in awe of your review! The funny thing is, I went to Primizie a couple of weeks ago, and I had the tagliatelle and thought it wasn't that bad. And now, I read your review and I'm like, Oh my God. He's totally right!

                            I'm interested to know if you have a favorite Bolognese in Austin because I'd like to try it.

                            1. re: foodiegal71

                              On the one hand, the "best bolognese" in town is not a very competitive category, foodiegal71. ;-) But I'd have to say that the one at La Traviata comes closest for me. Unfortunately, they finish the cooked sauce with cream at the end, which is controversial. In addition, their pork, beef, and veal combination may not strike the perfect balance for some. But they do cook it very slowly (supposedly, for 12 to 18 hours). The slow braising of a meat ragú transforms the basic ingredients into a silky, toothsome sauce.

                              I included a few links just to give an idea of the variations on bolognese:

                              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/421120

                              http://www.aaanetserv.com/cucina/rice...

                              http://it.wikibooks.org/wiki/Libro_di...

                              http://www.bolognacookingschool.com/D...

                              http://desarapen.blogspot.com/2006/01...

                              By the way, if you try the bolognese at La Traviata, make sure to get it with a wide, flat pasta like tagliatelle rather than those really thin spaghettini they used to serve with it. It's been a couple of years since my last visit, so I'll look forward to your update on their chow. Maybe I'll also stop in myself sometime in the next week or two.

                              1. re: MPH

                                Thanks! I'm going to try and check it out this week. I'll report back when I go.

                                I might have to give making it a try as well. Looks like I'll have a new challenge when I burn out on my French macaron obsession :)

                                1. re: foodiegal71

                                  After re-sampling Primizie's desserts over the past two weekends, I'm afraid that I have to take back my recommendation of them. The crust of the apple crostada seemed denser and not as flavorful. The bittersweet chocolate cake was no longer bittersweet, which had been the most appealing thing about it. I'm guessing that they either started adding more sugar to the cake, or they switched to a sweeter brand of baking chocolate. There also seemed to be no ground-up almonds in the cake itself, just a couple of whole salted almonds on top. I wouldn't order either dessert again, although I liked them the first time I tried them. I'd also suggest avoiding the terrible chocolate brownie. It was hard, dry, and too sweet, with poor chocolate flavor—and a chocolate frosting on top that did little to make up for the mediocrity of the baked product. Their panna cotta was the most palatable dessert of those recently (re-) tried, but its texture was thicker, firmer, and denser than is the norm. This custard is usually cooked until it softly sets but is still creamy. My impression was that Primizie's custard had been overcooked. It was also too sweet for my liking.

                                  I don't know what's going on with the pastries at Primizie, but after these most recent experiences, I won't be making another special trip there for the desserts.

                      2. I had a meal at Stortini several days ago, and can honestly say that I was pretty disappointed. There was a fair amount of hubbub when the concept opened about fresh, housemade pastas and whatnot. I, erroneously, concluded that they would attempt something along more traditional regional Italian. I admit my fault on that account. But several factors led to a lackluster meal.

                        The bread served (5-6 slices of baguette) was acceptable, but quite generic and more than likely purchased. It was served with a simple, satisfying chickpea spread.

                        The only appetizer I sampled was the chicken liver pate. All told, it wasn't too bad; a freshly unmolded round of pink (using Prague powder?) pate with some cornichons to garnish. Though largely imperceptible, I found the pate just slightly grainy, more than likely from overcooking the livers. The flavor was quite good, however.

                        As for entrees, I tried the cioppino and gnocchi with lamb polpette. The cioppino was a hearty plate, a mound of stewed vegetable surrounded by a decently flavored broth and several kinds of seafood (listed as calamari, shrimp, mussels and fish). I found the vegetables and broth both pleasant enough, but overcooked seafood doesn't do much for me. The shrimp was dense, the thin tubes of calamari not tender in the least, the mussels shrunken in their shells, and the nondescript whitefish flabby and falling apart. The housemade sausage is bland and very dry. The gnocchi dish suffered more acutely from confusion in its attempt at Mediterranean fusion. The dumplings themselves were fair, bordering on good. They were too dense, in my opinion, but, they were lighter on the tongue than would be expected at first glance. The lamb meatballs were, like the sausage, very dry, and, in this case, I think they may have included lamb fat in the recipe leading to an excessive flavor of game. Kalamata olives were another component simply overwhelming the gnocchi. I believe there were some sun-dried tomatoes and perhaps some other generic "Mediterranean" ingredients, but the assemblage is lost to me now.

                        It seems that at Stortini, the Nuevo Latino concept of El Gringo is simply being transferred to another cuisine. The problem lies in the fact that reinterpreting Italian food can not be very successful if the basics are not acceptably prepared. The menu is a bit confused, particularly if one is going to go all out and call it a "Ristorante Italiano." Stortini is okay; portions, value, and ambiance are all good, but service was a bit below par. Improvements in charcuterie and flavor combinations would certainly help them succeed, but I don't believe I will be returning to witness any potential changes.

                        1. Austin Italian options.
                          Shanntastic mentioned severl options, Stortini, Gypsy, Botticelli's, Primizie, Cannoli Joe's, Mandola's Italian Market, Ristorante Bellissimo.
                          I have not eaten at all of them but I have eaten at Botticelli's, Mandola's Bellissimo and Gypsy.

                          I love the pastry and gellato at Mandola's the food is mediocre but not bad the deserts are very Italian I have lived and still maintain a home in Italy and the deserts are spot on. Bellissimo is good southern Italian/American food I enjoyed it but was not blown away. I realy enjoyed Gypsy, the Pear arugula salad was one of the best I have had and the Lamb was perfect. one of my favorite Italian dishes is Puntenesca and the only place I have seen it on the menu is at Vespio and it was mediocre at best.
                          my vote for the best new options in Austin would go to Gypsy

                          1. Italian is a food I rarely go out for but I'd never had rissotto and decided to try Taverna the other day. I read that it was a "cool" place and wanted to check it out. The atmosphere left much to be desired. Looked like some cheesy banquet hall and I sat at the bar. I ordered mixed seafood over saffron rissotto. The bread tasted like a lame version of sourdough with some oil/vinegar on the side that was seperated. The sauce for the rissotto tasted like an alfredo type that complimented the seafood allright. I could not taste any saffron but there was calamari, shrimp, clams and mussels that tasted very fresh. Correction the shrimp had a faint ammonia taste. There were some tortillini but the rissotto seemed a little too hard. "Fresh" parmesan out of a bowl. But it served it's purpose which was recognizing my own culinary magnificence. Home Slice is improving a great deal I think as they've gone on a field trip to NYC to sample the real stuff.

                            1. Has anyone tried Bellagio in the past couple of months since they got their new exec. chef?

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: austinethos

                                I was about the ask the same thing. My boss (originally from NYC) went there about a year ago, and loved it. He said it was the only place he has been in Austin that made good NY style Italian. The wife and I keep planning to go, and never make it.

                                http://www.bellagioitalianbistro.com/

                                1. re: austinethos

                                  I got take out a few weeks ago and didn't notice any difference in the food at all.

                                  1. re: amysuehere

                                    I got dragged to Cannoli Joe's two weeks back and I figured I'd share in my experience and my overall severe disappointment. When you first walk into the place, you are given a tour and believe me, it's needed. The place is huge! There are different rooms that are styled in different 'themes' with names attached to each room. It's cute enough. But enough of the decor, onto the food and beverages. This place is one of those place that I just didn't want to acknowledge but after much pleading and poking, I was taken there. With tears in my eyes, I sauntered up the first part of the buffet and I will say this, I've never seen so much food! It baffles me in what they do with the food that is tossed but then again, I probably would be better off in not knowing at all. I'll break their choices down into categories:

                                    Wines and alcohol: Their selection is absolutely horrible and beyond that, the reds we asked for had actually soured and you could actually taste how bad they were. We sent these back and got two carafes of a more palatable Red wine. I'm more of a good Bourbon drinker (Bulleit, Jefferson's and Basil Hayden's being my preferred) and all they had were they atypical garbage of Jack, Jim and other 'would rather have a glass of water' choices.

                                    Pastas: The pasta on almost all of the choices were done well enough but there was definitely no 'perfection' in any of the dishes, the taste alone was enough for me to not even bother going back for all of their selections.

                                    Salads: Their salad selections consisted of the typical Garden, Italian and even a Caprese salad. Their cheese they use is abosultely vile. It's hard, it barely has any flavor and worst of all, it's comes 'cubed' onto all of the salads which makes it a chore to actually break it up yourself and disperse according to your style. The dressing is definitely lacking on their Caesar (I am still in search of a good Caeasar in Austin) and their vegetables are a bit on the wilted side from sitting out too long.

                                    Pizza: Don't even get me started. Even their 'special' of a fontina and mushroom selection was indigestible. The dough was chewy and not done properly, the sauce was 'Ragu with even more sugar' which I didn't think was possible.

                                    Meats: Dried, baked too much, not enough variation on spices.

                                    Sides: Their Garlic Mashers with Rosemary Gravy were just ordinary, nothing special, their vegetable primavera was acceptable enough.

                                    All in all, avoid this place like the plague UNLESS you are looking for a place that caters to the youngish crowd that likes to party with big drink vessels and crazy colored straws. They definitely cater to the 'Olive Garden' niche large family crowds which is fine, it's definitely not for me though.

                                    Fun fact: The best part of the meal was actually the Mocha Latte I ordered to help me digest the stuff I swallowed whole so I wouldn't have to taste. It was the perfect temperature with a nice mild smoothness to it and the sprinkles on top added a nice semi sweetness to the drink overall.

                                    1. re: SpaceAgeNinjaCowboy

                                      I scanned down the list and noticed that Andiamo wasn't listed, either pro or con. Ate there just before the holiday and was very impressed. You'll drive right by it if you're not looking for it...stuck in the same strip center as Pho Huong at Burnet and Rutland and very incognito. I was very impressed with the tilapia that I ordered; very moist with an excellent lemon caper sauce. My wife had the spinach ravioli and was likewise impressed. Great wine list, with a wide range from light to full-bodied at reasonable prices. Overall a meal well above average. I'll be back.

                                2. places links

                                  -----
                                  Cannoli Joe's - Fine Italian Restaurant
                                  4715 Us-290 E, Austin, TX

                                  Primizie
                                  1050 E 11th St, Austin, TX

                                  Mandola's Italian Market
                                  4700 W Guadalupe St # 12, Austin, TX

                                  Ristorante Bellissimo
                                  107 West 5th Street, Austin, TX

                                  1. I went to Mandola's for the first time last night and I was impressed. I got a cup of the ribollita soup (tuscan style vegetable soup thickened with rustic bread) and a small margherita pizza. The soup was wonderful, very tasty and nicely seasoned. The pizza was completely amazing. Very thin crust with olive oil brushed underneath, a light sauce, rounds of fresh mozzerella (they make it in-house?) and basil. The small pizza was large enough to feed two people.
                                    Afterwards, my friend and I got some gelato. Warning! Get a size smaller than you think you want. My god, they pile it up into the cup. I had blackberry, which was fine, but a little too sweet for being a fruit based-gelato. My friend got the tiramisu gelato which was REALLY great and is highly recommended.

                                    I definitely plan on returning to Mandola's.

                                    1. Really try It's Italian on Bratton Lane in North Austin. Very casual, but exceptionally good. The owner greats everyone and remembers all the repeat customers. Best calamari I have ever had, and I've been around. I had the veal piccata which was just superb and my husband had the special. We will definitely be going back on a regular basis. Delicious!

                                      1. You can't talk about Italian food in Austin without talking about Romeo's. Romeo's is a beautiful restaurant, it has a dark, romantic ambiance, live music, great service and most importantly the best Italian food I've had in a long time. I can personally recommend the fettucini alfredo, the pizza, and the cannelloni is divine. You can't go wrong here, it's the best!!!

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: danalf

                                          I love the Bolognese from La Traviata. I like the plain cheese pizza at Home Slice. It would survive in Jersey. We go to Enoteca and Delaware sub a lot. We had a pleasant surprise at Buca di Beppo... a simple but decent chicken Saltimbocca and the best dish of green beans I have had in Austin.

                                          1. re: danalf

                                            My husband and I had our worst meal in years recently at Romeo's in Georgetown. It's such a lovely building but the food and the service were reprehensible. We will NEVER go back.