This was our second visit to Via Emilia in The Woodlands; the (Northern) Italian restaurant has undergone a complete transformation as well as more than doubled in size since the last time we were here. The service is prompt, informed, courteous, and on the spot. No longer are the servers hiding away - the managers are on the floor, the environment is inviting and the aroma is intoxicating. And we had only just arrived. We had reservations "but we went anyway" as I like to jokingly say. And as it turned out, making reservations was a good thing, even with the additional seating and larger bar, the restaurant was seated near capacity when we left; not bad for a Saturday night.
We were seated in Gabriel's section, and he promptly arrived to greet us and request our drink orders. Interesting addition of technology input - Via Emilia has an iPad-like touchscreen tablet with their adult beverage offerings which was fun to use, yet the rest of the menu is "old school," printed paper. Not that this typical style of menu is bad, but it did seem a bit cumbersome when switching from one to the other. The electronic menu-devices are much heavier than you average iPad, and when closed, the protective cover makes them look like an historic book.
She ordered a Limoncello martini ($12), made with Ketel One Citroen vodka, Via Emilia's own Limoncello, and fresh lime juice. I had a Patron Silver Margarita ($12), made with Patron Silver Tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice. Both cocktails were well mixed, and refreshing. Though I did find myself more than once accidentally reaching for my margarita when I wanted water, as the glassware was a standard water glass. Upon returning with our drinks, Gabriel also brought a basket of warm garlic bread - a slightly toasted, fresh baguette, sliced and topped with olive oil and a blend of Italian herbs and spices.
Rather than start with an appetizer, I ordered the Insalata di Spinaci ($9); a salad of fresh baby spinach with strawberries, blueberries, candied pecans, and bleu cheese crumbles, with Via Emilia's raspberry vinaigrette dressing. The combination of the spinach, dressing, fruits, pecans, and bleu cheese was a great mix of flavors, and having the salad served in a chilled bowl helped to keep the greens crisp. My only complaint is that the spinach leaves still retained all of their stems, some several inches long. Eating salad greens with stems leaves you with two options; eating in a rather undignified manner, or painstakingly cutting off the stems yourself in a bowl with a butter knife - neither are ideal. Still, an enjoyable salad, and a mistake made by many establishments.
Since she went with a more unique salad, I opted for something a little more everyday/common and went with a Insalata Cesare ($7), with Romaine lettuce, dressing, and (as much as you want) freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The greens were crisp, the croûtons had a fresh-baked flavor, not chewy or overly-hard, and the dressing was mildly flavored and fortunately, minus any heavy Anchovy overtones. I think we both enjoyed her Insalata di Spinaci much more than I did my Caesar salad.
For my main course, I ordered the Gnocchi di Patate ($15) - Homemade potato dumplings topped with Bolognese sauce. Gnocchi are, depending on who you ask, could be either easy or difficult to prepare. To me, the gnocchi at Via Emilia were made and prepared well; they certainly seemed handmade, as they all varied in size and shape. I would have like to have seen them scored to better hold the sauce, but as the Bolognese was rich and meaty, it stuck well to the pasta. I did enjoy the dish very much, and though the serving was significantly smaller than one might expect from an Italian restaurant, it was certainly more than enough for my meal this evening.
The original Via Emelia was actually located in Venezuela, just a stones throw of the beach and an unadulterated view of the ocean so of course, they had absolutely-fresh seafood everyday. And with over 65 years background in preparing seafood, I certainly had to sample an Italian version of my favorite fish, Red Snapper. Last time we were here, I had the Pollo alla Picatta, and on this visit, I went with the Red Snapper alla Griglia ($29) - a grilled fillet of Red Snapper, topped with a lemon, capers, and garlic sauce, which was served with linguine tossed with spinach, olive oil and garlic. The fish was excellent, flaky and tender, done without being dried out, and with a delightfully fresh flavor - there was a slice of lemon available but it was not required and went unused. The linguine was prepared al dente and a perfect accompaniment to the snapper. I was a little disappointed when it came to the thickness of the snapper fillet, yet I found myself getting full before I finished.
Between cocktails, bread, salads and main courses, we'd had our fill and turned down Gabriel's offering of dessert. We did feel a little bad for him to have carried the whole dessert tray over to us from it's place near the entrance to peruse, and wish for his sake he might have offered to show it to us before retrieving it. All of them certainly sounded tempting, however, with a half-dozen or so different cakes such as tiramisu, Limoncello cake, a towering chocolate cake, a cannoli stuffed with mascarpone, as well as traditional crème brule, it required some willpower to say no.
As we mentioned previously, Via Emilia has undergone some immense changes in the dining room and it was money well spent on the new decor. The seating areas are comfortable and many tables are in semi-private areas, helping to keep meals both a little quieter and secluded. Our table, though in a section that is close to the entrance, required a mini-tour of the dining area in order to access it, making a trip to the lavatory at the opposite side of the restaurant quite the adventure. That in itself is certainly not detrimental, but with all of the planning that apparently went into the redesign of the space, seems to have been a bit of an oversight. The access to the section, while great for the staff, isn't as convenient for the guests. All in all, this second visit was completely different than our first and we are looking forward to the next.
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