3-course madness at the new Italian restaurant Amore in Montrose

When I get lucky on a restaurant visit, there will come a time when I’ll sit up straight in my chair, eyes wide, nerve endings at attention. That’s when I tasted something that’s not just good, but crazy – the kind of dish I’ll think about later.

I experienced three of these moments in Amore Italian Restaurantthe 6-month-old business of longtime Da Marco chef Alfredo Mojica and his wife, Christina.

Number one: a powdered pink tuna al taglio, its soft slices of raw fish accented with black sesame seeds, tendrils of freshly grated horseradish root, sea salt and a sparkle of lemon. Suddenly the warm summer evening sang.

Wood-roasted Patagonian prawns at Amore Italian Restaurant in Montrose

Alison Cook / Staff

Number two: wood-roasted Patagonian shrimp in a kind of deep shell-infused sauce that takes time and skill. The base was tomato, with a touch of butter and cream; but the shells gave it a dark, oceanic flavor that reminded me of a classic Nantua sauce on steroids. The prawns themselves were oily and perfect, with a pearly crunch.

I had looked askance at the raft of bread below, but once I tasted that masterful sauce, I shut up and drank.

Number Three: Ravioli Occhi, homemade pasta pillows stuffed with frisky sheep’s milk ricotta, smoothed with olive oil and sent straight to the moon with tart Meyer lemon zest, salted bottarga (eggs of dried fish) and sweet pinpoints of crushed amaretti, the Italian biscuits usually confined to dessert.

Occhi ravioli at Amore Italian restaurant, with sheep's milk ricotta, bottarga, fresh horseradish, Meyer lemon and extra virgin olive oil

Occhi ravioli at Amore Italian restaurant, with sheep’s milk ricotta, bottarga, fresh horseradish, Meyer lemon and extra virgin olive oil

Alison Cook / Staff

Great. This is my favorite pasta dish in Houston right now, and just right for the season.

3310 S. Shepherd, 713-485-0033

Open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Sunday

Everything else I sampled with a few friends that evening was solid, save for the pizza that emerged from the glamorous, golden wood-fired oven that defines the restaurant’s long, narrow space. The bottom crust was insufficiently burnt and the perfectly nice toppings of burrata, prosciutto, egg, arugula and a little tomato seemed overly generous.

Is there too much good prosciutto? In this case, yes. However, all the elements come together here to produce fine pizzas. Time will tell us.

Mojica pasta clicks on the right path. Bouncy strands of linguine with manila clams in their shells got an earthy boost of pancetta chunks, the unsmoked Italian bacon, plus a hint of red chili.

Harry’s Bar Spaghetti with Lobster was lusciously rich, the springy noodles smothered in a tomato-based brandy sauce similar to prawns, meaning fortified with seafood shells and smoothed with a little cream. The fresh mint was the surprise item. At $38, this pasta is a splurge, but there’s more than enough for two people to share.

Harry's Bar spaghetti at Amore Italian restaurant, with lobster, brandy, tomato and mint

Harry’s Bar spaghetti at Amore Italian restaurant, with lobster, brandy, tomato and mint

Alison Cook / Staff

I was interested to see that Mojica incorporated seafood into some of its pasta ideas, like white lasagnetti with branzino; Where. squash tortelli seasoned with salmon roe. Fish has always been a strong point at Da Marco, so I look forward to returning for Mojica’s treatments of branzino, pink snapper, Dover sole and grilled sea bream (orata).

Another point of interest: Here, Mojica, who was born in Mexico, is free to incorporate Latin elements into his menu. Thus, adorable bites of potato croquettes make slivers of Iberian ham sprout and are gilded with a truffle cream; or salmon caviar accompanied by small corn cakes. American notions also creep in in the form of “Thanksgiving Duck”, red wine-braised short ribs and individual baked Alaskas.

The menu’s eclectic leanings continue a classic Houston history arc, in which veteran Hispanic cooks who worked in the city’s top restaurants eventually branch out. Mojica has taken the path that took the Pucha brothers from classic French tables to their own Maison Pucha with Ecuadorian influences.

Hospitality at Amore is warm, led by Christina Mojica; and there’s a team of waiters you’ve probably met at some of the best restaurants in town. A nice gentleman I know from BCN and A’Bouzy actually rushed outside to greet me after seeing me nearly run over by a city bus as he was trying to get over construction obstacles on Shepherd Drive. Be warned, the rumble will last another month and a half or so.

Yes, there are white tablecloths, but the feel is more democratic than Da Marco. You can wear whatever you want, and the evaluation at the door to establish your place in the pecking order is utterly absent. The slot-like layout – a legacy of the Shepherd Drive storefront used to house Maine-ly Lobster-Roll Sandwiches – ensures there are no obvious “best” tables.

The wine list is less Italian and less grandiose (both in quality and price) than that of Da Marco. But it does the job, although over time I hope it gets refined.

At dinner, the room feels like a lively family reunion, populated by Mojica fans and longtime customers, many of whom seem to know each other. Near me, two generations toasted a birthday with multiple orders of a puff pastry confection sprinkled with almonds and oozing pastry cream.

I had to order one too. And guess what? Mad-good.

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