Category Archives: Italian

Osteria Mazzantini


Updated Posting:  December 2013

Seriously.  $65 for an off-the-menu osso bucco special when it was on the menu for our first visit at $39 and better executed as well.  And the rest of our dishes weren’t as impressive as our first visit.  We haven’t been back.

Original Posting:  October 2013

Resident in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, Osteria Mazzantini is the latest offering from John Sheely, the chef-owner of Mockingbird Cafe.  Located immediately adjacent to and north of the Old Navy shopping center, we had some trouble finding the place as there’s no sign yet on Post Oak.  But, once we did, we were quite happy.

The inside of the restaurant is on the smaller side.  There’s a nice sized bar area and an expansive outdoor patio that will likely be buzzing once we see cooler weather.   Tables inside the restaurant are spaced close together, which might bother some diners.  The noise level was very manageable (including hearing your neighbor’s discussions).  There’s a bar menu and the now ubiquitous artisanal cocktails.  (The manhattan style one was quite tasty.)  Prices are comparable to other mid to high end Houston restaurants.

Upon being seated and ordering drinks, the complimentary bread service was delivered, complete with a yummy lardo butter and a high quality olive oil.   There were many menu offerrings that we wanted to try, but, when we see bone marrow, we can’t resist, so our appetizer choice was made.  Served piping hot, with grilled toast (order extra) and sided with a vibrant salsa verde sauce, the bone marrow was a great start.  We then tried the kale and sweetbread ravioli, with brown butter, parmesan and pine nuts.  While we couldn’t discern the sweetbreads, the ravioli were quite delicious.  For our entree, we shared the osso buco.  Richly sauced, served with the traditional gremolata and complete with a tiny spoon for the marrow, this was as good a version of this classic that we’ve had in a long time.  But the dish was made particularly special by the parmesan risotto.  Most restaurants can make risotto taste quite good by using copious amounts of butter and cheese, but the tricky part is in getting the right consistency.  Osteria Mazzantini has that down better than most places.

Our reservations were honored on time, and the service was very good.  The only glitch was that we apparently got out the door without receiving the complimentary mini-box of cookies.  We used the free valet parking, but we understand they validate parking in the garage.  This is a hot place right now, reservations are a must.  Given the location, they’ll be busy at lunch, and we’ve heard they’ll also be doing a weekend brunch.  Let’s hope they can keep up the great execution.

2200 Post Oak Boulevard, # 140
713/993-9898
http://www.osteriamazzantini.com/

Coppa Ristorante Italiano


We’ve been remiss in not writing about this new restaurant that we’ve now visited twice.  When we heard that the owners (the guys from Ibiza and Brasserie 19) were converting the former Catalan location to an Italian restaurant, we had to wonder what they were thinking in that Houston has more than enough Italian dining opportunities, with the now ubiquitous brick oven turning out various versions of “authentic” Italian-style pizza.  But, judging by the crowds, we have yet another Italian success story. 

Reservations are a must, particularly on a Saturday evening.  Despite the crowds, our reservations were honored on time, as was as our requested preferred seating.  We’ve had excellent service on both visits.  We started with nicely done cocktails, both times the same — a ginger spiced manhattan and a blackberry martini — since we enjoyed them so much the first time.  And, true to the owners’ reputation, we found a bottle of Chappellet Mountain Cuvee priced about the same as retail.  (It was available on both our visits, so we hope we haven’t sparked a run on it or a price increase.) 

We’ve tried three appetizers — whipped mortadella crostini, pate, and burrata.  Not sure we’d have the mortadella (Italian bologna) again, but we’re glad we tried it.  The housemade pate was good but a little on the sweet side; both choices that evening had a dried fruit spin.  The housemade pickles were very nicely done.  The burrata was a standout.   Generously served and very creamy, the cheese was delicious.  Sided by a coppa-topped salad and Campari cherry tomatoes, it was an all around winner.

On our second visit we tried the much ballyhooed pizza (imported flour, special water, etc.).  We couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pizza called “coppa ‘ham & eggs,'” billed as featuring spicy air-dried pork shoulder and quail eggs.  It just didn’t work for us.  We dare to suggest that there wasn’t much flavor to the pizza.  We assume the tomato sauce (slightly sweet, simple) and minimalist cheese are intentional to the style, but the pork topping also lacked flavor, not to mention spice.  The quail eggs were a fun novelty but didn’t add much to the taste.  We’ll head to Dolce Vita, maybe Alto or Piola, for pizza and stick to the other items at Coppa.

We’d heard the chef earned her job by making spaghetti carbonara, so we had to try it.  We found the dish very enjoyable, perhaps a little peppery, but richly sauced by the egg and cheese mixture, loaded with lots of salami (not the typical pancetta, but it worked).  There are a large variety of other pastas, many homemade, that have looked very good when they’ve passed our table.

The restaurant does not feature many entrees, only four or so each night, emphasizing appetizers, pizza, and pasta.  But one of the entrees — the chicken “under a brick” — was so good that we had it both nights.  The pizza oven is turning out something for which we’ll be back.  Served on top of parmesan polenta, the lemon and herb infused baby chicken was plump and juicy on the inside, with the crispy skin that’s a required component of brick chicken.  Probably the best version of this dish we’ve ever tried.   (Sorry, but this one puts Carrabba’s and Grotto’s versions to shame.)

Catalan was one of our favorite Houston restaurants (we’re greatly looking forward to Underbelly), but we’re impressed the Ibiza guys could do it yet again.   And with Italian, nonetheless.
 

5555 Washington
713/426-4260
http://copparistorante.com/

Alto Pizzeria


We’re frequently seeking somewhere new that stays open late so we can dine after the theater or ballet.   Alto fits that bill, and we stopped in one recent Saturday evening.  We aren’t big fans of the RDG enterprise offerrings, having not even reviewed RDG on this blog.  But we like pizza, and we live not far from the new West Ave center.  With the restaurant’s pedigree, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the crowd but, later in the evening, there were plenty of tables.  No reservations are taken.

The restaurant is very attractive.   Contemporary, dark woods, huge windows overlooking Kirby, comfortable seating in almost a lounge like environment.  There’s an open kitchen, with a view to the brick oven from which many of the menu offerrings emerge.  The attitude of the server was a little nonchalant, but we can’t fault his timeliness.  And he did graciously replace one of the signature wine cooler type drinks that we found too sweet.  

We started with the oven roasted mussels.  Baked in the oven in a copper pot in a white wine and herb infused broth, the mussels were tasty enough.   To their credit (or detriment, depending on one’s perspective), the broth was quite light, no cream in sight.  We were looking for a litle more flavor, but we weren’t filled up before our pizza arrived.  We ordered Alto’s version of the meat lover’s pizza, topped with salami, italian sausage, and pepperoni, as well as mushrooms and provolone.  Was it one of the best pizza’s we’ve ever had? No.  Did we scarf it down with no leftovers?  Yes. 

Will we race back when we need a pizza fix?  Probably not.  Will we go back when we’re looking for a nice post-theater environment for a glass of wine and a bite to eat?  Probably yes.


2400 Kirby (in the West Ave center at Westheimer)
713/386-6460
http://www.avaalto.com/alto/

Caffe Bello [Closed]


A new restaurant from the Vallone family, again housed in a former La Strada.  We’ve heard sufficiently mixed reviews about Ciao Bello on San Felipe that we haven’t been there.  But we decided to give its sister location on lower Westheimer a try, only because the chef, Michael diMaggio, was formerly at the now shuttered Rockwood Room, a place we’d really liked.  (Since we dined at Cafe Bello, the chef has left.)

While Tony’s keeps going strong, there isn’t much buzz about this new restaurant, which was evident in the relatively quiet scene we found one recent Saturday evening.  By the time we left, most of the tables were full, but we doubt they turned much during the evening.

Service was friendly and prompt from the hosts to the servers.  Wines by the glass were reasonably priced, which was a pleasant surprise.  The menu had a number of enticing options.  We started with a very tasty and unique pizzetta topped with oxtails, gorgonzola and mushrooms.   We moved on to try the goat cheese risotto and the rigatoni Bolognese.   Both were very good, with the latter chock full of meat which we particularly like.  We finished with the day boat flounder special, a deliciously fresh whole grilled fish filled with seafood stuffing, with a light beurre blanc sauce and grilled shrimp. 

322 Westheimer
713/520-5599
http://www.caffebello.com/index.cfm

Stella Sola (Closed)


The latest endeavor by the Reef Guys, Stella Sola occupies the space formerly (and briefly)  known as Bedford.  Located on Studewood, next door to the Glass Wall, this new Houston restaurant has been buzzing since shortly after it opened.  This despite the rocky start caused by the dismissal of its well-known chef, Jason Gould (formerly of Gravitas),  just days before the opening.  The sous chef, Justin Bayse, stepped in and the restaurant opened just a couple months before the publication of a New York Times article about Houston restaurants featuring Reef and Stella Solla (among others).  On a weekend (which starts on Thursday on the Houston restaurant scene), reservations are essential; make them at least a week in advance.

Thankfully, the Reef Guys did some remodeling to cozy up the minimalist interior of Bedford.  Banquette seating was added along one side of the restaurant, and the warmer colors go with the “Texas Tuscan” theme of the restaurant.  No, we didn’t make that up.  That’s how the restaurant was originally presented by the Reef Guys and, after dining there, we suppose that characterization is apt, if not slightly gimmicky.    We didn’t spend any time in the bar, but the cocktail menu was designed by Bobby Huegel (Anvil Bar), the artisanal cocktail master of Houston.  Since we’d actually been at Anvil (highly recommended) before heading to dinner, we just had a glass of wine and didn’t get a sense of the wine list.  Our service was friendly and attentive.

Chef Bayse is touted for his homemade cured meats, so we had to start with the Meat Market Platter.   Graced by six different cured meats, primarily with a pork emphasis, we particularly enjoyed the pancetta, lardo (don’t ask, just eat), and the pork shoulder offerings.   We were horribly disappointed to find that the restaurant had just run out of the roasted half suckling pig (served for two persons).   We settled for the country style pork rib (a hunk of pork shoulder) that was a little dry on the outside but tender and moist closer to the bone.  (Having tried cooking country style pork ribs, we have to give credit to the chef;  that’s a tricky piece of meat to cook right.)   The pork was sided with delicious (i.e., bacon strewn) sautéed kale.  We also tried the rock shrimp and bay scallop risotto.  The risotto was properly cooked and quite tasty, tinged with lemon, but, for $24, we expected more shrimp and scallops.  The shrimp were cut in small pieces, about the size of the bay scallops, and not particularly plentiful.


This restaurant will likely continue its popularity.    The Chronicle’s Allison Cook just gave it two stars.   We plan to venture back soon, but we’re calling first to make sure the suckling pig is on the menu that night.

1001 Studewood
713/880-1001
www.stellasola.com 

Enoteca Poscol



Marco Wiles has branched out again on Westheimer.  This time in the former Café Montrose location near Mandell.  In fact, the Café Montrose sign is still on the marquee of this rather run down strip shopping center.  Billed as a wine bar with small plates, this place feels more like a restaurant than a bar.   And don’t expect the fun vibe of Dolce Vita’s old house.   The limited bar area (not much space if there’s a wait for tables) and low ceilings, lend to a low key ambiance.  The menu, which requires some translation even for a foodie, is all in Italian, as is the wine list.  The prices are reasonable,  similar to Dolce Vita.    The service was friendly, knowledgeable and prompt (with the exception of refilling the water glasses; note to waiter:  it’s not just the bus help’s job). 

The menu bears similarities to Dolce Vita in that there’s an array of meats, cheeses, vegetables, fried items, salads, risottos, and pastas.  Panini replace the pizza.  We particularly like the vegetables at Dolce Vita, but we weren’t as excited with the two we tried here.  We wanted to try something new — cardoons — which look like celery, taste similarly bland although they allegedly taste like artichokes, and were poached in what seemed to be cold broth reminiscent of vegetable soup.  Not to our liking.  The beets were baked in parchment with goat cheese and hazelnuts.  Sounds good, but didn’t quite hit the mark for us.   Too bland and the hazelnuts were raw.
 
One of us was intrigued by the risotto with chicken livers although combining with yellow squash seems odd.  But we opted for predictability for at least one dish.    We ordered the tagliarini in a parmesan cream sauce with bits of pancetta(?).  Served in a piping hot dish straight out of the oven (the pastas are listed on the menu under “forno”), the dish was appropriately decadent and delicious.  We also enjoyed the panini special which included homemade pork cheek sausage and fontina cheese.  We love cured meats and cheese, so we may go more that direction  if we return.  But only after we first go back to Dolce Vita for our fix of egg truffle toast.

Open only in the evenings, parking is available in front of the restaurant, and we understand there’s a valet on the weekends.  We felt for the owner of the adjacent laudromat who stood in the parking lot blocking two spaces for his customers. 

1609 Westheimer
713/529-2797

Bistro Don Camillo [Closed]


We were in the Galleria on a recent Friday night, so we ventured a little bit further west to this recent addition to the Houston restaurant scene.  Located on a side street off Voss just south of San Felipe, this restaurant is housed in a fading strip center across from Hartz Chicken and a do-it-yourself car wash.  It’s owned by the same folks that own Bistro Provence on Memorial.  We were encouraged by the packed parking lot, and the cozy bistro style dining room was equally busy.  The very accommodating hostess found us a table for two, and we were quickly greeted by our friendly waitress.  Service was great from start to finish.

We aren’t sure about the origin of the name,  but the food is a somewhat odd mixture of  French and Italian.  (A merger of two of the best mediterranean cuisines into one concept, according to the website.)   We saw a number of families, so they may be catering to a mix of tastes.  The prices were very reasonable.  It was quite refreshing to find good wines by the glass for only $8 or so.   Once we ordered, we were served two large bread sticks right out of the pizza oven.  Dipped in the accompanying olive oil, we had to restrain ourselves from filling up on bread alone.  We tried the calamari (no surprise) with aioli and spicy tomato sauces.  Served piping hot, it was very good, laced with a few fried zucchini and pepper strips.  We moved on to the salmon carpaccio, thinly sliced house cured salmon with a taste of lemon and dill, which was probably the best dish we tried.  The person sitting next to us offered us a taste of the duck liver mousse, which was a little too strong flavored, resembling chicken liver.   Encouraged by the low prices, we tried a delicious Italian style thin crust pizza with ham, goat cheese (which they generously applied), and artichokes.   The pizza also fared well for lunch the next day.  Finally, we ordered the duck leg confit entrée.  Served in a casserole over white beans, this dish was similar to cassoulet, but without any sausage, pork belly or the like.  It was tasty enough, and we give the duck points for being crispy, although it was overly salty even for salt lovers like us.   The dish was better a couple days later when the beans were cooked a little longer for Sunday evening supper.

We enjoyed our meal.  Give this place a try.  No reservations are taken except for larger groups.  If we lived in the neighborhood, we’d probably be regulars.  But with  Cafe Rabelais and Max and Julie’s nearby, we may not get out there very often.

6510 Del Monte
713/782-3011
http://www.bistrodoncamillo.com/

Damian’s Cucina Italiana


We had not dined recently at this well-established Houston restaurant, which for many years was lauded as the best Italian in town.  Opening in the early 1980’s, Damian’s introduced  Houston to one of its first upscale Italian dining experiences.  Although we note the sentiment expressed in the Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide that Damians doesn’t serve true “cucina italiana.”  Like Grotto and La Griglia, among others, Damian’s serves the American version of continentalized Italian.

Our last visit to Damian’s was during the Calamari Travels when we stopped in for a glass of wine and to sample their version of the popular appetizer.  We weren’t impressed with Damian’s calamari, and it didn’t make our top 10.  A weekend evening at the ballet occasioned an early dinner, followed by Damian’s complimentary transportation service to the theater district.  We were surprised at how busy the place was at 6:00, practically full.  Reservations are strongly advisable and necessary if you want to use the transportation service.

As soon as we were seated, we were greeted with the bread basket.  It hasn’t changed much over the years and, while perhaps not the best in town, the foccacia is pretty tasty.  The ubiquitous olive oil dipping sauce included some welcome additions of garlic, basil, and chili flakes.  We shared as a starter the cold seafood salad, which was a medley of scallops, squid, and shrimp.  It was o’kay but lacked some zest, needing more citrus.  For our entrées, we had the chicken and pork tortellini and a veal special.  The tortellini was appropriately rich and gooey, the pasta tender, the filling flavorful.  The veal special — sautéed scallopini with a lemon white wine sauce, topped with crab meat — missed the mark.  The dish just didn’t quite work; perhaps it was the overly thick sauce that overwhelmed the veal.   And it’s not true that lump crab added to anything improves the dish.

The service at Damian’s is consistently good.  Many of the waiters have been there for years.  And they are happy to accommodate special requests.  Will we return any time soon?  Probably not, but we wish continued good things for this restaurant that has managed to survive and thrive for so many years. 

3011 Smith Street
713/522-0439
http://www.damians.com/

Bohemia European Cuisine and Bar [Closed]

CLOSED SUMMER 2008

Three words:  Expensive Train Wreck

We wouldn’t bother with any other comments, except the chef at Bohemia is Alberto Baffoni, the original chef/owner of Simposio, which opened a number of years ago to rave reviews, including from the national press.  Not sure where he disappeared over the years, but he lost his mojo.  He’s back at a far Houston location, with limited resources, poor quality ingredients, and a hodgepodge menu of Italian and Eastern European dishes that are priced comparably to Houston’s finest restaurants.    To add to the ethnic mix, there’s belly dancing on Fridays and Saturdays, although not until 10:30 when we doubt there are any diners, given there were only three tables full when we arrived at 8:00 on a recent Saturday night.

The decor is tacky.  The food was disastrous.  And the service was sincere but inept,  starting with the bartender (and self proclaimed sommelier) who poured our Chianti by announcing that he hoped we were ordering meat since that was the only thing you could eat with a Chianti.  Actually, we drink red wine with everything, and we were ordering seafood.  He volunteered that Chianti was too “big” for him, and that he was really a fan of the Barolos, Barberas and Brunellos.  Go figure.

Neither of the featured menu items — the whole grilled branzino or the whole lobster — were available.  (We didn’t realize that branzino is “seasonal” and, if that’s the case, why do you have it on your printed menu?)  And this was a Saturday night at a new restaurant.  The best we could guess was they didn’t anticipate enough diners to invest in pricey, perishable inventory.  The veal tonnato appetizer was inexpensive veal with a bland sauce.  The $31 grilled seafood platter was way overcooked, including inedible salmon.  The three “Secret Sauces” were salsa, balsamic vinaigrette, and tartar sauce.  (We’re not kidding.)  The selected side dish — asparagus and pancetta gratin — showed up as just grilled asparagus.  The pistachios in the $32 pistachio crusted halibut were unrecognizable and burnt, as was the halibut.  The saffron sauce was yellow but otherwise tasteless.  The billed haricot verts that accompanied the halibut were grocery store green beans.

To top things off, a DJ and a lounge singer started in around 9:00; they were mediocre and quite loud.  Although they did help to damper the silence of an empty restaurant.

We’re sorry to be so ugly, but this was really a bad experience.  (Read the review just posted on Houston Citysearch if you think we are critical.)


10850 Westheimer
832/252-7600
http://www.bohemiahouston.com/

Piatto Ristorante


We’ve dined at Piatto on a number of occasions.  Owned by a member of the Carrabba family, it turns out a variety of well prepared Italian dishes.  Not everything is the best version of the dish that we’ve ever had, but we’ve always enjoyed our meal.  Service is good, they take reservations, and you can hear your guests’ conversation.  It also seems to be a good place to take your elderly relatives judging by the crowd on a recent Saturday evening. 

Given the plethora of Italian dining options in Houston, there are at least two extremely good reasons to pick Piatto — the fried asparagus appetizer and the calamari.   These are two of the best starters in Houston.  The former is beautifully crisp, non-greasy asparagus spears generously topped with lump crabmeat and sided by a ramekin of butter sauce chock full of even more lump crab.  Go ahead and eat the stuff with a spoon.  The calamari, which we rate #2 or #3 in the city, is also deftly fried with a tasty batter, sauced lightly with a pepper butter sauce.  Sit at the bar with a glass of wine and these two dishes, and you’ll be a happy diner.

4925 W. Alabama (behind Dillards Galleria) (and another location way out on Westheimer)
713/871-9722
http://www.piattoristorante.com/