20 APRIL 18, 2003
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dining ja chapman
Nundini and its delicious Italian
sandwiches a pleasant surprise
Expect the unexpected
EVERY SO OFTEN WHEN I'M RESEARCH-
ing new restaurants, I come across an unexpected gem. That's what happened when I
walked into the Nundini Food Store. I'd
noticed their red sign advertising Italian food
and gelato for some time, but never stopped in.
One day recently, the sign offered a free
gelato with meal purchase. That was it. I
had to go see what this place was all about.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the
rather uninspiring industrial office park on
North Shepherd just past White Oak Bayou, I
wondered what kind of place would be here,
just on the edge of such a busy thoroughfare.
A couple of tables with umbrellas on the
deck by the front door seemed pleasant
enough, but I still didn't know what to expect.
I opened the door and walked into a funky
mix of an imported food store, Italian deli, gelato and pastry shop. I wasn't even sure where to
order but headed to the deli in the back. A
sumptuous assortment of Italian meats and
cheeses, along with bowls of olives, peppers, and
salads filled the cooler, while meats and cheeses
made of foam hung overhead. It seemed strangely authentic and contrived at the same time
The simple menu is on a white board and
offers salads for $5.95 and panini for $6.95. That
includes a bag of chips and a 12ounce drink, ■
plus the free small gelato. It seemed like a pretty good deal to me. I ordered the muffaletta and
took a look around the place while I waited.
THE SHELVES BY THE DOOR DISPLAY A
respectable selection of Italian foods like
pastas, and olive oils. Incongruously they
also contain a large assortment of ceramic
serving dishes. The middle of the large space
holds about seven chunky dark wood tables
that seem right out of an old Steak and Ale.
The drink coolers flank the tables on one
side and on the other sit the pastry display
cases holding cannoli, imported Italian
cakes, and an assortment of Greek favorites.
The gelato and sorbet are next to the pastry case, and in the back are more shelves
with Italian cookies and chocolates. It's a
fun place to peruse and you might even
want to pick up an item or two.
Eventually my muffaletta was ready, and I
took a seat at one of those clunky tables. The
round bread was thick with a chunky olive
mix and generous servings of excellent quality ham, provolone, mortadella and salami. It
was toasted just enough to melt the cheese,
creating a warm, delicious sandwich. If it
wasn't quite up to New Orleans' Central
Grocery quality, it was a reasonable approximation. I'd opted for a side of pasta salad
instead of the chips, and found it to be a tasty
combination of penne pasta with yellow peppers, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
When I finished my sandwich, I headed for
the gelato case, which boasted about 10 different flavors. You get two scoops in a small serving, and after tasting all of them, I settled on
the chocolate and a coffee and caramel mix.
Wow! Rich, delicious and bursting with flavor,
the gelato was a real luxury I knew I'd be back.
And return I did, to try the Italian salad —
mixed greens with roasted peppers, cucumbers, olives, onions and the best feta cheese I've
had in ages. Okay so the dressings are in little
packets and there isn't much selection; I can
work with that. Most of their deli business is
take-out, so they're geared in that direction.
The prosciutto and mozzarella panini
was excellent. Fresh, crusty bread so good I
asked where it came from (it's flown in daily
from an Italian bakery in Dallas) is lightly
toasted, and the high quality prosciutto and
mozzarella blend perfectly together. I can
also recommend the tuna salad panini, a
mix of tuna, onions, egg and sun-dried
tomatoes again on that fabulous bread.
AFTER SEVERAL VISITS, I WAS STILL
uncertain what this little shop and restaurant was all about. The food was quite good,
but the space devoted to the deli and tables
was only about half of the large room. So I
decided to ask. Marion Jones, the general
manager, told me that most of their business
was gelato, which they sell to various restaurants around town. The space was originally
designed to be a showroom to demonstrate
their products for chefs, and they added the
deli and other items as they went along.
So I guess that explained it The deli was
something of an afterthought Well, it's a delicious gem of an afterthought. The Nundini Food
Store offers some of the best Italian sandwiches
in town, and their gelato is a real treat. It's funny
how the best food can be hidden in the most
unexpected places. I guess that's part of the fun.
Nundini Food Store
500 North Shepherd
Houston, TX 77007
Food: MM mm
Service: M Ml WN
Scene: MM Ml
¥= Stay home and eat cereal
MM= Well, if you really must
*il= Fine for all but the finnicky
M! Ml Ml M=Worth more than a 20-minute drive
M M Ml M Ml =As good as you'll find in this city