Love, Italian Style
. . . at Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino
by Marene Gustin
Hard to believe, but some folks still don’t know that Lynette Hawkins is back.
Hawkins was the chef/owner of La Mora Cucina Toscana, a romantic Tuscan-styled restaurant that served sublime Italian fare for 16 years on Lovett Boulevard just down the street from the former Lovett Inn. Now the inn is a hostel, and when La Mora closed in 2006, the lovely old building was razed to make room for condos. Such is time.
The executive chef herself took a hiatus from the restaurant business for three years, but in late 2009 she opened Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino, a cheery, casual Venetian eatery in River Oaks that offers some of the most authentic Italian fare in town.
“My dad was a petroleum engineer,” says the jovial Hawkins. “He moved the family to Florence when I was a baby, so I grew up learning to cook Italian.
“Along with Mom, I learned the simplest of rustic Tuscan recipes taught by kind neighbors, shopkeepers, and the young farm girl who kept house for us. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Italians adored Americans. In Florence, their hearts went out to a young American woman—my mom, whose husband was away on long trips most of the time. So she was left alone to fend for herself with her two baby daughters in a country very alien to her.”
And so Hawkins seemed destined to run an Italian restaurant. After the family moved to Houston when she was 19, she got a business degree from the University of Houston and started working in restaurants. And she’s never looked back.
While the food is just as fantastic at Giacomo’s as it was at La Mora, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Giacomo’s, which is named not for the composer but for Hawkins’s beloved late Labrador (whose pictures hang in the entryway) is bright, airy, and breezy. Where La Mora was dark, earthy, and romantic, Giacomo’s is comfy and casual with an interior designed by Kathy Heard of OPEN Restaurant Design. There’s a wall of brightly colored trapezoids by artist Rachel Hecker, simple tables and chairs, a bar with bright tangerine bar stools, and chalkboards above the counter and along the bar area announcing food and wine specials. It’s all very retro mid-century, like an old neighborhood wine bar. There’s also a charming vine-covered patio with red umbrellas for those lovely-weather days. But it is really the food that draws the crowds. That, and maybe the wine and coffee. The eatery has an extensive list of boutique wines from Italy, France, Spain, and California and probably one of the best espressos in town.
“I love Italian wines,” says Hawkins, “so about 95 percent of the wine list is from Italy. But I really try to pick well-priced wines that complement the food I serve. One of the benefits of being in the restaurant business is that you get to sample a lot of wines for free.”
The wonderful coffee drinks are made from local roaster Katz Coffee, and many of the ingredients for the dishes also come from local producers.
Besides the small hot and cold tapas-like bites displayed at the counter, the menu offers huge servings of pastas, soups, salads, and some wonderful hot entrees like the Pollo Guido (stuffed chicken breast) and a whole grilled trout that melts in your mouth.
If you haven’t been to Giacomo’s yet, a good way to check out the offerings is the special four-course, prix fixe Valentine’s Day Menu on Tuesday, February 14, from 5–10 p.m. The cost is only $40 per person, or $57 with wine pairings. And you’ll certainly want the wine.
The dinner starts with crostini topped with smoked salmon mousse and caviar, paired with a three-ounce pour of Juve y Camps Brut Rose Cava followed by a plate of Tortelli di Bietola, one of Giacomo’s most popular pasta dishes. The little pillows of ravioli are stuffed with goat cheese and red Swiss chard swimming in sage butter and paired with a delectable Pala “I Fiori” Vermentino white wine.
And if that isn’t enough, there’s also the il secondo (second course): a grilled hangar steak with roasted Yukon gold potatoes followed by an espresso-flavored frozen chocolate mousse.
“I just tried to come up with items I would like to eat if I were having a romantic dinner,” Hawkins says. “Light, and not too much garlic or onions! And of course you have to have chocolate for a romantic dinner.”
If you don’t make the Valentine’s Day dinner, you can always just drop in some day. Giacomo’s is one of the those places that is open continually from lunch to dinner, allowing folks to pop in during the afternoon or early evening for a glass of wine, an espresso, or a quick bite. Maybe some spicy lamb meatballs or the little sandwiches called tramezzini. Like Giacomo’s motto says, mangia poco, bene, e spesso—eat a little, well, and often.
Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino
3215 Westheimer Rd.
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.