Gioachino Rossini, the Lone Ranger’s classical composer of choice, was said to be a gourmand of the first order and no mean amateur chef to boot. In between composing such enduring classics as William Tell (the overture, used in the equally classic Lone Ranger radio series of yore, is the opera’s most well-known aspect) and The Barber of Seville, he apparently more than dabbled at the stove, leaving behind him a trail of dishes with his name appended. Tournedos Rossini haven’t appeared on any of the menus I’ve encountered at Rossini Italian Bistro, but then the menus at this new Castle Hills café change weekly. Hope springs eternal.
The husband and wife team that runs Rossini (he’s in the kitchen, she’s up front) has been around the block in San Antonio; they began with an Italian restaurant near the Medical Center, then moved it to Lincoln Heights, and now they’ve moved again — to NW Military — with a name change and menu makeover. While there were previous flashes of inspiration, this time the spark seems to have ignited.
Featuring a glassed-in open kitchen, Rossini is smaller and much handsomer than any of the previous incarnations. Perhaps even more important, the menu is far simpler, allowing the kitchen to concentrate on good product beautifully presented. An appetizer order of Parma e rucola arrived at the table as a tangle of simply dressed arugula surrounded by pearlescent petals of Parma ham; it was as remarkable for its restraint as it was for its straightforward tastes. Like most of the appetizers, the antipasto fresco is essentially a salad. And while it was equally handsome, this combination of roasted red bells, marinated artichoke hearts, and Kalamata olives showered with slivered garlic and dressed with olive oil, didn’t rise to more than the sum of its parts. (Take away the salt shaker and bring us a dish of sea salt, please.)
In the world of Italian cooking there are numerous primi “alla Rossini,” and they range from penne and tortellini to spaghetti and a roll stuffed with ricotta and spinach. Apparently the maestro had a penchant for pasta. So far, this Rossini doesn’t. A lunch serving of rigatoni rosati, coated in a creamy tomato sauce and dotted with cubes of chicken breast, had the ratio right: it was all about the perfectly cooked pasta, not excessive sauce. But the dish desperately needed salt and pepper — along with a little fresh basil for color if nothing else. I had also hoped that a dish that was essentially a risotto with potato would turn out to be a paragon of homely virtue. But no; it was frankly underseasoned, counting principally on a touch of tomato and hint of parmesan. Sometimes less is not more.
Mains, however, have been magnificent. From the fish section, amberjack, sautéed with hearts and bottoms of artichoke and leek, was impeccably rendered — the fish crusty yet flaky, the sauce buttery yet balanced, the side of sautéed spinach a well-conceived companion. Angello al balsamico, a lovely little rack of lamb in a just-right balsamic vinegar sauce, was cooked to a faultless medium rare and served with quartered potatoes, crusty on the exterior and creamy on the interior, that were pazzo with the sauce. Crazy good, in other words.
The Italian wine list offers a decent and reasonably priced selection of bottles to go with any and all of the above, but it’s seriously deficient in wines by the glass. The house pinot grigio is OK in a one-dimensional way; same goes for the California sauvignon blanc. Among the reds, a pinot noir from Sicily is acceptable if you’re not a stickler for varietal character, and a Ruffino Chianti lacked any real sense of place. We may be willing to accept cuisine that’s based on simple renderings of good ingredients, but with wine a little more art is often welcome.
Art is more apparent on Rossini’s dessert list. The tiramisu is “award-winning,” there’s a very elaborate-sounding almond cake, and then there is the possibility of unassuming mascarpone with fruit. If dessert were on the agenda, this is where I’d go. For a finale of sorts with even fewer calories, turn to composer Rossini’s delightful piano pieces from his under-appreciated Sins of Old Age. There you’ll find a suite dedicated to dry fruit desserts and even a petit galette Alemande. If chef would take a suggestion … •
Rossini Italian Bistro
2195 NW Military Dr.
The Skinny: Simple but well-executed Italian cuisine from a menu that changes weekly.
Best bets: Appetizer salads, fish dishes, lamb
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am-2pm Mon-Fri; Dinner: 5-10pm Mon-Sat
Prices: Entrées: $22-$24. Credit cards accepted