It's hot out. Hitch the boat to the pickup and head straight for Canyon Lake. No boat? No problem. Head for the lake anyway. Stop just short of the shore. Destination: air conditioned and endearingly kitschy Gennaro's Trattoria.
Tarred by red sauce and red carpet alike, Italian-American cuisine has fallen on hard times lately. But if you think of it as its own category, not a cartoon version of the "real" thing (kind of like Tex-Mex), then there's much to be appreciated. Naples native Gennaro di Meo and family have other restaurants in the Houston area, but, after coming to Canyon Lake for years, they decided to settle down and get serious.
"This is their baby now," our server told the San Antonio Current last week.
And wreathed in painted grapes and plastered with murals of Venice and the Bay of Naples, what a baby it is. Nobody, least of all me, would have expected reinvigorated Italian-American to be found in Startzville, but at the risk of over-stating my amazement, here 'tis. Cliché as it may seem, everything is made from scratch and, evident in several dishes, also starts out fresh. We can all too easily begin with the freshly baked bread and garlic knots — they're the first indication that this is not your re-heated rolls kind of place. The problem will be in stopping yourself: It may take a while for your order to arrive, but please try not to fill the time, and yourself, with bread. Servings are generous and most diners were observed exiting with to-go boxes in hand.
Definitely to be ordered as appetizers: the mussels (a whiff of nutmeg was both unexpected and perfectly calibrated); the yes-I-know-they're-way-too-common fried calamari; Ana Maria's excessive but exquisite layered eggplant with prosciutto, parmesan and a sauce with spinach, roasted bell pepper and sundried tomatoes. You can certainly order pasta as an entrée (the emphatic rigatoni con salsiccia in a "light pomodoro sauce" is recommended.) But as we did in a separate visit, consider splitting a pasta dish as an appetizer. The stuffed pasta of the day was beef-filled ravioli in lemon cream. But the kitchen is extremely accommodating regarding interchangeability of sauces and sides. We asked instead for another light tomato sauce and were smugly appreciative of the way it worked with the tender pasta.
Like most dishes at Gennaro's, the automatic house salads are not blazing new culinary paths. They are, however, impeccably fresh and smartly and simply dressed. Appreciate this while you can, as entrées tend to get daunting. An order of osso buco, with lamb standing in for the unavailable veal, was cloaked in yet another variation of a salsa pomodoro — this one distinguished from others by copious capers and onions. At our request, the sizeable shank accompanied the vegetable side that would have partnered the veal (lamb normally comes with pasta). Our only complaint was a lack of advertised rosemary on the potatoes and the need for just a sprinkle of salt.
At first glance, the wine list isn't impressive. (This is a good time to tell you to make reservations, as we had to cool our heels for about 30 minutes on a Wednesday evening, time that was well-spent sampling wine.) But the woman in charge of the list is happy to let you taste from open bottles, to direct you away from bottles not at their prime and to suggest others that are just right. Our selected bottle of Ramon Bilbao 2011 Crianza Tempranillo Rioja was a beautiful bridge between several dishes, including a risotto di mare.
A lot of restaurants prepare risottos halfway to cut down on the cooking time once an order is received. That does not seem to be the case here. But it is also true that this was not a risotto as we normally know it: just slightly al dente rice, moist but not soupy texture. Gennaro's rice requires an attitude adjustment: it's decidedly soupy and totally tender. Once this possible "Milan vs. Naples" distinction is acknowledged (the same ingredients can also be had over linguini), it's no holds barred with fresh seafood aplenty in a distinctively herbal tomato bath. Fresh basil added yet another dimension.
Most sane people would not contemplate dessert at this point. But they're all made in-house and the Italian cream cake — proudly tall, moist and studded with walnuts — was just too tempting. And too good. After all that, maybe you can leave swimming for another day.
10018 Startz Rd., Canyon Lake (830) 899-2800 gennarostrattoria.com
Skinny: A new generation of Italian-American in a most unlikely location.
Best Bets: Mussels di Pepe, Melanzane Ana Maria, Rigatoni con Salsiccia, Lamb Osso Buco, fish of the day, Italian cream cake
Hours: 11am-9pm Wed-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri-Sat, 11am-9pm Sun