Paolo Fronza and Matteo Alessandri have upped the dining game at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) with their latest concept, MFA Cafe. The duo, who previously co-owned Fellini Caffe in Rice Village, have brought Italian-inspired fare and gourmet coffee to the space formerly occupied by Café Express.
While you can still expect counter-service and a casual vibe, the eatery's decor is a far cry from its predecessor’s digs. Your meal here comes with a side of art: Dining takes place amid priceless Italian works and artifacts, all on loan from the MFAH.
The white-walled, 3,000-square-foot space, with bright red columns, seats 100, with lots of room to spread out. For those who seek an outdoor space in the cooler weather, there's a small patio on the Binz Street side of the building.
Three seating areas, dotted with light wooden tables and chairs, line one side of the café. The dining sections are separated by two room dividers, which house more than 20 hand-blown glass pieces made in Murano (a series of islands near northern Italy where glass has been made for more than 700 years) and placed in chronological order by origin date from the 1930s to current.
An eye-catching chandelier, also from Murano, hangs near the interior entry, and a glass case near the center of the restaurant showcases antique serving pieces. Still to come: A selection of Italian artwork for the walls.
Stay connected thanks to free WiFi, with 30 outlets built into several high-top communal tables located in front of the coffee bar.
“We designed MFA Cafe with the idea in mind to have a space where people can come to, grab a bite, study and stick around for awhile,” Alessandri tells CultureMap.
Place your food order and then dig into Northern Italian-inspired fare made with fresh, local ingredients (both Fronza and Alessandri are Italian-born with the latter’s family recipes on the menu). The roster of around 30 items ranges from paninis and Roman-style pizza to soups and salads.
Highlights include the bresaola panini (lean Italian cured beef with slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano, arugula and extra virgin olive oil served on sweet and sour Italian bread), thin-crust prosciuttoo pizza (topped with Parmigiano and arugula) and smoked salmon salad (with cherry tomatoes, Kalamata purple olives and scallions. Satisfy your sweet tooth with pastries, tarts, cannoli and more from the pastry case.
The European-style coffee bar offers espresso, cappuccinos, flat whites, lattes, smoothies and frappès. The bar also boasts four brews (three from Texas, plus Peroni Italian beer), three red wines, five white wines and four prosecco-based drink, including a Bellini.
The cafe is open 10 am - 4 pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 am - 9 pm Thursdays, 10 am - 7 pm Fridays and Saturdays and 11 am - 6 pm Sundays. It is closed on Mondays, except holidays.
Sticking to a formula that works, Fronza and Alessandri plan to launch an Italian eatery and coffee shop, Rossini, in the Hines' San Felipe Place tower in November.