The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Barbara Chisholm, June 16, 2000, Food

Cafe Spiazzo

3663 Bee Caves Road, 328-4858

Sun-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-10pm

This is a success story. More than 10 years ago, a small Italian cafe opened in the space vacated by another success story: Castle Hill Cafe. In that spot on Lamar Boulevard behind what was then Sound Warehouse, the restaurant featured a dining room with Jackson Pollock-ish black chairs splattered with vibrant streaks of paint in bold, primary colors. The menu was at once simple and ambitious. Bowls of olive oil for dipping bread was a novelty in those days, so the bowls of the flavorful oils infused with herbs was a treat in itself. The kitchen was devoted to the notion of minimizing -- perhaps even eliminating -- canned food. Sauces were rendered from fresh tomatoes (perhaps boosted by quality canned ones in the off-season); vegetables had never seen a freezer, much less a can. While the scope of the menu didn't navigate any uncharted territory, it relied less on Southern Italian staples of spaghetti with tomato sauces and pizzas, and more on olive oil-based sauces, meats, and other more Northern dishes.

Maybe that space on Lamar was charmed for a time, because almost as quickly as Castle Hill grew, Cafe Spiazzo outgrew the 15 or so tables the dining room allowed. So on to a northwest location on Parkcrest. In that location, the restaurant seemed to expand in its ambitions as well as its size, conforming to its new neighborhood. The menu became a little more adventurous and the dining become decidedly more tony, in keeping with its new digs.

Success followed on Parkcrest, and now, instead of a move, Cafe Spiazzo has opened a new location in Westlake on Bee Caves Road. This latest location, in the former Madam Nadalini's digs, has the restaurant morphing slightly again, as befits its neighborhood. Gone altogether are any lingering vestiges of its original funk. The floors are polished concrete, the tables are covered in white, and the room is dominated by a large, black wrought iron candelabra that imparts a decidedly cool (literally, not metaphorically) air.

And the menu, too, reflects the polished if somewhat conservative neighborhood in which it is housed. The strip center that is home to the newest Cafe Spiazzo is also the address of the Westlake Breed's, Kid Genius, and other upscale retailers. No doubt with their neighbors in mind, the cafe wisely has chosen to offer a menu that is high on quality, freshness, and familiarity.

A recent Thursday lunch found the restaurant humming. Business seems quite brisk; despite the plethora of strip mall businesses and the mushrooming expansion on 360, this Westlake area is relatively sparse when it comes to noontime dining options. Business types and ladies who lunch made up the crowd. The kitchen offers an abbreviated menu of items designed to get you in and out in an hour. An informal modeling from the boutique next door continued throughout the meal, which gave the afternoon a decidedly feminine air. While it's fun to observe the offerings of a chic boutique, it's a definite appetite suppressant to be constantly interrupted by a six-foot-tall model who easily fits into a size 4 dress.

Nonetheless, my female dining companion and I plunged ahead and ordered the upscale version of that burger joint staple, fried cheese (goat cheese fritti, $4.95). Instead of the stringy, often greasy, variety found at any happy-hour bar, this version featured delicately sized portions of goat cheese atop a flavorful pool of roasted tomato sauce. It seems inconceivable that anyone thought to bread and then fry cheese, but when executed well, without all that grease, as this one is, it's sinfully delicious. The tomato sauce is deeply flavored and slightly chunky and brings out the very best qualities of the tomatoes. This is a sauce that makes you spoon every last bit off the plate, since that's the most acceptable alternative to licking the platter. The sauce is the basis for a couple of items in the entrée section, and I would eagerly order it atop any pasta.

The bread and bowl of olive oil of Spiazzo's earliest incarnations are still here. The novelty of this item has long since faded, but good olive oil is still tasty. The bread is baked in-house, yet it's not especially noteworthy. The pillowy texture of some of the cities' finest ciabattas is missing entirely, although it makes a suitable sponge for the oil.

For my entrée, I chose the salmon wrapped in prosciutto ($8.95) from the specials offered that day, and my companion chose the fettuccine with sautéed garden vegetables in a parmesan sauce ($6.45). The fish was a generous, thick fillet cooked to maintain the moistness of the fish, but the flavor was completely overwhelmed by the complete cover of the Italian bacon. Prosciutto is a highly flavored meat; a little goes a long way. While I appreciate the generosity of the portion, it did no favor to the fish. My companions' pasta was attentively cooked and tossed with a suitably rich sauce that is a cousin to alfredo. (We deserve points for ordering this stuff in the midst of a fashion show starring Capri pants!)

Dinner, some time later, featured a nearly identical menu. This time, the visit was made memorable by a personable waiter who clearly knew the menu, was eager but not hovering, dealt with a snafu in the timing of salads with ease, and made my seven-year-old feel like an honored guest.

For dinner, I chose the special that evening, a rack of veal, but had to forgo it since the kitchen ran out of veal just minutes before I made up my mind. Instead, I opted for a pork chop stuffed with spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts ($13.95). My husband selected the smoked chicken/ poblano lasagne ($10.95) from the Italy SXSW portion of the menu. (As its name suggests, southwest items are combined with more typical Italian items in a marriage made in Texas.) Our daughter was served a garlic oil spaghetti ($3.95) that was not on the menu, but the kitchen was only too happy to oblige.

After another fritti appetizer of the fried goat cheese (the cheese for my daughter, the sauce for me, both things for my husband), the entrées arrived somewhat late. While the spaghetti was lovely and al dente, and the lasagne intriguing and satisfying, my pork chop was woefully overcooked. It was apparent at a glance that the meat was overcooked. My knife confirmed my suspicions when I cut into the bone-in chop. The stuffing was a safe and reliable choice and would make a lovely complement to some sweet pork, but in this instance it was all just too dry to be a thoroughly enjoyable meal. The accompanying roasted rosemary potatoes were likewise overdone; the pungency of the herb had evaporated sometime before they arrived at the table, and the crust had gone from crisp to burnt. The trouble with my entrée was the exception among our items, but the kitchen let it go out, and a prompt replacement was not offered when I indicated the problem.

The wine list can only be described as scant. There is a disclaimer that says that it is under construction, so surely it will expand in the future. At this time, however, the Italian red wine options include four chiantis. Period. There are four California wines, which brings the grand total of red wines to eight. The list of white wine is similarly brief. I hope for more choices in the near future.

There were several sumptuous desserts offered that evening, and despite the heartiness of the pastas, my husband dove into the triple chocolate cake topped with a gorgeous piece of caramelized sugar that looked like a golden piece of broken glass. My daughter was presented with a white chocolate cheesecake in a graham cracker crust that was equally impressive in its presentation. The desserts were luscious, rich, and beautiful and made for dessert over two nights since we couldn't quite finish them off. I couldn't swear to the Italian authenticity of the items (they seemed sweeter and richer than most Italian desserts that I'm familiar with), but I can vouch for their quality.

Generally good quality, of dubious Italian authenticity sums up my impression of this latest installment of the Cafe Spiazzo story. It seems to have found a menu that is quite satisfying to the discriminating, if somewhat conservative, diners in the Westlake area. It makes a fine, usually reliable place to have a quality lunch within the time allotted by a busy schedule. It also makes for a lovely place for dinner, where wary diners will find familiar items and the more adventurous can be satisfied -- if not exactly challenged. As the kitchen settles in, blunders such as the dry chop will no doubt be eliminated. Cafe Spiazzo seems to have found a formula for giving the customers, wherever they are, what they want. And that is their success story, and the success story of the diners in the neighborhoods in which they reside.

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