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Beet, goat cheese and basil amuse bouche - a stunning starter
by Phaedra Cook; photos by Chuck Cook Photography
Gerry and Adriana Sarmiento left the information technology world to start an Italian restaurant. Gerry studied and took over the chef duties while Adriana handled the front of the house. Both became certified in wine.
Under their care, Mezzanotte Ristorante has established a fine reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Cypress area. It’s been so successful that they opened a Peruvian restauraunt, Piqueo, in the same shopping center. The two restaurants are connected by the kitchen, and on any given night, you can see Gerry walking around either one or the other. He stays in touch with the staff via a headset. No one ever said his IT background wouldn’t come handy!
Running two restaurants is hard work, so it was certainly welcome news when Alberto Baffoni came to work as the chef at Mezzanotte. Baffoni brings with him a long, mostly positive history of working at Italian restaurants. His runs at Simposio and Sappori were both well received, albeit the one at Sappori was depressingly short. “Where are you Chef Baffoni?” cried one commenter on Eater Houston.
The passing of the baton (actually, the tongs) from Gerry Sarmiento to Alberto Baffoni
Baffoni and Mezzanotte seem like a very good match. On this, Gerry commented “Alberto and I are happy campers: he does not have to worry about the business side of things and I don’t have to worry about the kitchen. Our match is close to perfect; our culinary visions are aligned. Whatever he does I like and whatever I suggest he executes flawlessly. We have a new line of home-made pastas and bi-weekly specials. The menu hasn’t changed tremendously but his contribution has been outstanding. I am really looking forward to the continuing evolution of our cuisine.”
I live about ten minutes from the restaurant and out here in the Northwest Territories, it can be a bit of a restaurant wasteland. Mezzanotte and its Peruvian sister, Piqueo, have been oases. I’m a proud neighbor when the inside-the-Loop media folk come out for an event out here in the boonies and discover that we really do have some great food out here.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when Mezzanotte hosted a media dinner to introduce Chef Baffoni and his cuisine. As my writing peers arrived, the evening started out great as martini glasses with lightly pickled beets, goat cheese and basil were passed out, along with a glass of Ruffino prosecco.
After the amuse bouche, the dinner was segregated into four phases: antipasto (starters), primi (first savory course, usually pasta or risotto), secondi (second savory course, usually meats) and dolce (dessert, as the word means “sweet” in Italian). Each phase had three small samples of something available as a full size appetizer or entrée on the menu.
Everywhere Chef Baffoni goes, his vitelo tonnato goes with him, and there’s a good reason why. It’s delicious. For those who have not had it before, it will sound bizarre, but you just have to try it. It’s thinly sliced, tender veal, topped with tuna that has been mixed in a mayonnaise sauce. Chef Baffoni’s version was garnished with basil, capers—which lent a nice touch of salt—and tomatoes. This dish was part of the antipasto course, along with tender, lightly breaded, skewered (in spiedino) calamari and Portobello périgourdine (interestingly, a French term that means “garnished with truffles or truffle sauce).
I was already very familiar with the Portobello appetizer, as it is usually one of the choices available on “Steak Night,” which is Thursdays. It’s a crispy, delightful treat and the rich sauce gives it a welcome complexity. The calamari was quite repectable, but it just didn’t get me excited like the other two.
The primi consisted of strozzapreti emiliana, gnocchi di patata al funghi bosco, and risotto al frutti di mari. Pasta names are perpetually amusing if you translate them. The Italians are very practical people and there is no romantic fluff that goes into naming pasta. Strozzapreti means “priest stranglers.” As you might guess, these are long, thick strings of pasta and, like much of the pasta at Mezzanotte, it’s made in-house.
I inhaled the gnocchi. OK, I didn’t really, but I ate them so fast I might as well have. If I hadn’t have been dining with companions I might have licked the sauce out of the dish, too, but I like being invited out occasionally. They were in a “forest mushroom” sauce. I’ve made gnocchi at home. It’s well worth the effort, but it takes a long time, and I always appreciate good gnocchi that I didn’t have to make myself.
The risotto made me rejoice. I’ve had a long, dry spell of “risotto” after “risotto” that was nothing more than a rice dish. To finally have real risotto made with Arborio rice was quite a treat.
Ossobuco, done well, is always special and Mezzanotte’s version here was no different. One night, I’m going to go back and get the full entrée. It was tender like pot roast, topped with gremolata and sitting on a bed of perfect polenta. The polenta was bathed in the herby and tart jus.
Rounding out the secondi was anatra al forno (“duck from the oven”) with raisins and costolette d‘agnello al pistachio (chop of lamb with pistachios). Both were very good and I would not be sad for either entrée to show up on my dinner plate. The osso bucco was still my favorite, though.
After all of those complex tastes, I was more than ready for something dolce. The basil sorbet that we were treated to hit the spot perfectly. It was simple, refreshing and classy. I left feeling like I’d just had a family meal… well, if I’d been adopted by an Italian family, that is.
Sometimes, media dinners have a “roll out the wagon” quality to them. I am fortunate that I’m already a regular at Mezzanotte, so I have the perspective to know there was nothing special going on at the media dinner. At least, nothing more than the “normal special” that goes on all the time.
Restaurateurs can take some notes from Gerry and Adriana on what it takes to build loyal clientele here in Houston. At Mezzanotte, it’s not just about the food. That’s just the gateway.
From the time I first started going there, the vivacious couple have always made it a point to greet and talk with everyone in my family, including my kids (who are mostly young adults now). They’re genuinely interested in their customers. Don’t be surprised if they call you by name after only a few visits.
People like Gerry and Adriana build fierce loyalty and that’s why, if you want to come here on a Saturday night, make reservations, because half of Cypress will be in there. After all, Mezzanotte is our neighborhood restaurant.