If you have long harbored a desire to travel to Italy's wine country, but have had to console yourself with a bottle of Bulgheri Super Tuscan instead, then I must commend you on your tasteful substitution. Yet even that pales in comparison to the surreal experience you will have of actually being in Italy when you visit Carmelo's Ristorante' and Wine Bar located at 14795 Memorial in Houston.
Carmelo's is a tantalizing smörgåsbord of smells, tastes and sights, that seduce the senses. Visually it unfolds in the main wine bar area with aquaduct inspired mirrored alcoves that send glimmers of refracted light through various bottles of libations. Directly beneath the bar stools, in large gold lettering, "Carmelo's" is elegantly spelled out. Adjacent to the bar are two tables surrounded by a trio of Byzantine style Roman columns that help to create the illusion of your own personal private oasis. Between this area and the dining room lies an exquisite floor to ceiling scale model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Seriously ~ I'm not joking!) When taken in all together, the impression you are left with is that Carmelo's (named after the proprietor Carmelo Mauro) is a celebration and love affair of all things Italian.
Beyond the wine bar's confines and to the left of the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” is the primary dining area of the restaurant for those who plan to stay for lunch or dinner. This area has its own bar, with the outer walls adorned by imaginative wooden cutouts that depict a small village on a hill.
Each home in this village is lit up from the inside by strategically placed fiber optic lights in the miniature plexiglass windows, creating a dramatic backdrop glow. When the overhead lights are dimmed, it's easy to imagine that you are dining beneath one of the cliff side villages that dot the Amalfi Coast in Salerno, Italy.
So enchanting is the overall effect, that I overheard a lady state after a wine laden lunch, “I think we should just pitch a tent here and spend the night”. Even though I laughed at the time, I completely understood her desire to linger here awhile longer.
There is something about this place that makes you feel as though you are part of the family here and not just a “customer”. I liken it to maybe having an uncle Guido that owns the local Italian cafe', and you just happen to be fortunate enough to be his favorite niece or nephew. A place where you know you are always welcome and where you continually find yourself being drawn back to.
The remaining floor plan of the restaurant area has several hidden chambers that serve as separate dining rooms which house formal dining tables that seat up to 14 guests. Wall to wall, built in wine racks surround each chamber, with most of them filled to overflowing with a plethora of delectable selections from France, Italy, Spain, Chile', Germany, New Zealand and even as far away as Israel.
So vast are the choices, prices range all the way from $20 , to as much as $2,000 per bottle for the collectible reserve wines. Some of these special reserve wines, Carmelo has openly shared with guests joining him at his monthly Vintners Choice dining events. His revelation of this most generous gesture, prompts me to accuse him of “just showing off ”, to which he quickly flashes me a grin and laughingly admits that, “Yes, that's probably true!"
For those that would like to attend this monthly event, be forewarned that they are typically sold out months in advance to a group of no more than seven couples per event. Those fortunate enough to attend will have Carmelo as their personal chef, sommelier and host. You will no doubt feel like royalty while being served a sumptuous five course meal with multiple wine pairings, followed by coffee and dessert priced at $400 per person.
For others that might be on a tighter budget, you won't want to miss the “Flavors Of Italy” dining event on February 21st, 2010, beginning with cocktails at 6:30 then dinner at 7 p.m. The Italian Trade Commission will be sharing two chefs on that date, who will be cooking alongside Carmelo, as well bringing fresh ingredients directly from Italy for a fabulous five course dinner paired with select Italian wines for the paltry sum of $100 per person plus gratuities and tax. For reservations, call ahead early to Carmelo at 281-531-0696.
For a list of other upcoming events featuring Carmelo, including the Annual Gourmet Kosher Dining Extravaganza being held at the Intercontinental Hotel February 22, and the Keels and Wheels event being held at Ferrari of Houston, on March 4th, please visit Carmelo's website at www.carmelosrestaurant.com
Whether you live here or are just visiting Houston, this needs to be on your “Must See” list. They are so much more than a wine bar within an Italian restaurant. Carmelo's is an unforgettable experience. One you'll want to share with others, and have for yourself, over and over again.