A friend originally from Italy who lives in Austin was recently staying downtown for a conference. He had long complained of the dearth of quality Italian food in Austin – well, there was Carmelo’s, which he said was not nearly as good or as Italian as the one here, as there was much less Carmelo – so I was quick to steer him to a restaurant that could fulfill his wish for truly Italian fare, and, nicely, was within several blocks of his hotel, Quattro in the Four Seasons.
Led by Chef Maurizio Ferrarese, the kitchen turns out contemporary Italian fare, truly Italian, tempered by the steak-and-potatoes wishes of the average business traveler, plump, middle-aged and middle-American. Also, Ferrarese is a native of the northwestern region of Piedmont, which my friend asserted had the second best regional cuisine in all of Italy (after his home region, of course). This is about the highest praise an Italian can give to a non-native cuisine.
My friend was impressed. Though he reported one minor misstep, with a Piemontese dish, in fact, but the chef was off that Monday night, and it not really deter the overall experience. Ferrerase is seemingly adept with much of the Italy’s disparate locales and regions, many of whose dishes might grace the menu at Quattro. He was the executive chef at Four Seasons in the Tuscan capital Florence before coming to Houston, and I sampled some of his tasty renditions of Pugliese dishes from the heel of the boot at an event at the Italian Cultural Center in the past.
Chef Ferrarese and his staff did a terrific job with recent dinner for my dinner club in La Cucina, the room adjacent to the kitchen that allows diners to watch their dinner being prepared. We asked for a meal consisting of dishes from Piedmont that Ferrarese might not be able to cook for a regular menu. He responded with four courses of modern preparations or versions of traditional dishes with the highlight, the main course being a fritto misto, a collection of fried items that is the centerpiece of most celebratory dinners in his home area, and something you rarely see on menu, even in Italy. The result was excellent, from the four, or quattro, of vibrant starters served together on a plate: a piece of tuna serving as the center of an interpretation of vitello tonnato, a cured fresh fish, a version of carne crudo, raw beef, with summer black truffles, and a vegetable in the garlicky bagna cauda sauce; through the dessert, a take on the traditional bonet, a semi-sweet chocolate custard pudding. The two risotto dishes, the primi, featuring a creamy style, all’onda, were excellent. One featured Fontina cheese and wild mushrooms, the other deep-fried frog legs, an adaptation of a frequent dish from Ferrarese’s childhood. He is from Vercelli, the European capital of rice, where frogs populate the rice paddies, and risotto is a staple. His kitchen does risotto very well.
The fritto misto, though all fried, was not as heavy as one might have expected. This version consisted of six breaded and deep-fried items – a lamb chop, a beef cutlet alla milanese, cauliflower, an apple slice, a piece of semolina dough, and two amaretto cookies held together by jam – and a link of grilled fresh sausage (the women in our group prevented us for some of the more interesting traditional inclusions such as cervello and animelle, but no matter). Ferrarese told us the sweet or slightly sweet items are typical and aid in the balance of the course. It did, and the dish was very enjoyable. Each of the fried items needed no sauce and was properly tender and succulent. The sausage was the excellent, juicy pork sausage you will find in butcher shops in much of Italy, but is nearly impossible to find in Houston. Overall, it was a truly Italian feast.
When you are thinking of Italian, high quality Italian, think of Quattro. Though bustling during the week with business travelers and often on Sunday morning for brunch, the dining room is seemingly under-served on most Friday and Saturday nights. It is easy to get downtown then, and valet parking at the hotel or nearby street parking makes access easy. The food makes it is well worth the trip.
1300 Lamar (at Austin, in the Four Seasons Hotel), 77010, (713) 276-4700