Food & Drink : Don’t get too saucy

Massimo Pallotelli sounds off on pasta and his new restaurant, Sage

“This is a million dollar place that didn’t cost a million,” reveals restaurateur Massimo Pallottelli, his deep-set brown eyes darting about like a soccer goalie. “I always wanted to move downtown, but I never had a chance in such a beautiful place.”

Pallotelli’s new restaurant, Sage, has replaced the long-languishing Polo’s in the Fairmount Hotel, and his eponymous Massimo Ristorante e Bar, once located on Nacogdoches, has closed. So why, when every other chef in town is heading up to the Northside, has Massimo moved to the city’s center? Because downtown, in his estimation, is more lively and peopled than it has been for a long time. “Walking on Houston Street used to be scary; it wasn’t a pretty picture,” he says. “Places were closed, now they look open; it’s different.”

At Sage, critic Ron Bechtol recommends pairing the pistachio-praline-capped sage custard, plated in a reduced berry purée, with a Malvolti Prosecco.

Urbanites shouldn’t get too smug; so far, only 30 percent of Massimo’s Northside clientele have made the trip south. “It’s a mindset about not coming downtown,” Massimo says, and, of course, he’s right — folks on both side of the great divide are guilty of a there-be-dragons mentality.

But Northsiders should come on down, if not for the chic new digs, then for a menu that is intentionally different from the Ristorante’s offerings. “I didn’t want people saying the gnocchi are better at one place than the other,” Massimo admits, but there’s also a sense that he’s experimenting with new flavors. “I wanted to do some of the same things, yes, but in a different way ... playing here with fish-of-the-day such as tuna and grouper, for example — though shrimp and snapper are the biggest in San Antonio.”

At this point, sitting at a table in the, yes, sage-green and Tuscan-tan restaurant interior, we take off on a series of tangents, from children to soccer to local tastes.

You can’t sell a “dry” pasta in San Antonio to save your soul, says Massimo — despite the fact that since 1996, when he first opened on Babcock at 410, Massimo has himself formed many of our vero Italiano tastes. By dry pasta, he does not mean the uncooked stuff out of a box. (He has no problem whatsoever using boxed pasta, as long as it’s the good stuff. “Cheap pasta? Ain’t gonna happen,” Massimo says.) No, the issue is sauce: Pasta should be served with just a modicum of sauce. “Here we add cream to a carbonara to satisfy the taste of the customer,” Massimo says. “In Italy, the customer just breaks an egg in it ... you need to feel the pasta in a dish, but we always want too much sauce and leave the pasta behind.”

So, what if a customer requests more sauce for a seafood pasta? “How am I going to get that?” he asks. “I’m not the Olive Garden, with jars of sauce. I’d have to make another order ... I don’t use clam juice.”

Nor does he use fake parmigiano. Many restaurants do, he claims, because of the price. “You have to pay for the parking `of the cheese, while it’s aging`.” And so it goes, and all the while we’re sampling such menu items as tenderloin on toast-points with a basil-infused olive oil and shiitake mushrooms — the perks of interviewing a chef in his own lair.

401 S. Alamo
7-10am, 11am-2pm, & 5-9:30pm Mon-Sat
Price range: $15-32
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Wheelchair accessible

We also try a ravioli with a veal, raisin, and spinach stuffing, an invention of one of the young Italian chefs working in Sage’s kitchen. The raisin adds a fascinating note of sweetness. “It’s not classic,” Massimo says, “but these 24-year-old chefs still have fresh palates ... you give your car to a `young` professional driver, and he will make it scream.” As a footnote, he adds that in the U.S., “people treat their cars better than their stomachs.” We next sample an apple tart with a light, sage-infused cream, and I feel I’m treating my stomach very well indeed.

Yet, for all their firepower, the 20-somethings aren’t always on top of their game. At a subsequent lunch, a tubular pasta is beyond al dente to seriously chewy, and the simple sauce is overly oily. Fortunately, a grilled vegetable panino makes up for the misstep.

And at a recent dinner, all is back on track. Massimo and I sip an exceptional, deep-straw-colored Dometaia 2001 Vernaccia di San Gimignano by Baroncini as I await the arrival of seared scallops over a purée of leeks. This was one of those seamless matches — a full-bodied white wine, tasting of the Tuscan countryside, scallops still speaking of the sea, the mellow leeks a sotto voce backup band.

Massimo likes to promote the Corbera Nero d’Avola because it, too, speaks of its soil. It is, theoretically, too big and jammy for the sautéed grouper with cherry tomatoes, capers and red onion he suggests for the secondo. I order a glass anyway and am surprised that the firmly fleshed fish, with its unpretentious topping (the somewhat pushy lobster ravioli weren’t available that evening, or I might have ordered them), doesn’t back down in the face of the rustic red. And though a Malvolti Prosecco might be ideal with the pistachio-praline-capped sage custard, plated on a reduced berry purée, the Nero wasn’t a total misfire there, either. That may have been due to the custard’s subtle herbal quality, or perhaps to the age-old adage that opposites attract.

Either way, if I learned one thing talking to Massimo, it’s that you can’t rest on your habits. Still, it may take something more dramatic than garnished grouper to bring the remaining 70 percent of his customers downtown. A mostly empty dining room on a Saturday night suggests that we still consider the Olive Garden and its abundant sauces to be the real thing.

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