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Houston’s Top 10 Italian Restaurants

Where to go when you need an Italian fix.

Best of Houston

Rest of the Best 2014

"The trouble with Italian food is that five or six days later, you're hungry again."  — Comedian George Miller

The best time to go to Da Marco is during black truffle season.
Katharine Shilcutt
The best time to go to Da Marco is during black truffle season.
You bet Backstreet Cafe’s seasonal tomato menu is on this bucket list.
Courtesy of Paula Murphy
You bet Backstreet Cafe’s seasonal tomato menu is on this bucket list.

Ah, Italian food: one of the most recognizable cuisines in America, encompassing pasta and pizza, arguably two of the best culinary inventions ever. Italian food is easy to get horribly wrong, though. Fortunately, for a city so proud of our Tex-Mex and seafood and so wild about barbecue and burgers, Houston has some truly great Italian restaurants.

This is thanks in large part to the port of Galveston, which saw wave after wave of Italian immigrants arrive on its shores and settle in the cities surrounding the east Texas coast. Not knowing what else to do and longing for the food of their homeland, they began to open restaurants. We wrote about some of these pioneering restaurateurs in our "First Families of Houston Food" feature in Feb­ruary, detailing their histories and how far they've come.

Their awesome culinary legacy is alive and well in Houston at these top ten Italian ­eateries.

Honorable mention: Coltivare, which has some truly stellar pasta dishes and pizzas, and Vinoteca Poscol, a wine bar with a great menu of small, carefully crafted plates.

10. Arturo Boada Cuisine

When Arturo Boada parted ways with his partner at Arturo's Uptown Italiano back in 2011, the ensuing disagreement over recipe and name rights threatened to overshadow Boada's new restaurant as well. But he proved he was back and better than ever when he opened Arturo Boada Cuisine shortly after leaving his original namesake restaurant. The menu contains a medley of Spanish-inspired tapas items and classic Italian dishes, the best of which are the wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas like the "Why Not" Margherita, a near-perfect example of a traditional Italian pie. The tapas are also pretty great, if you're in the mood for a continental dining experience.

9. Antica Osteria

Antica Osteria gets extra points for atmosphere. The cozy, romantic spot is a little old-fashioned (as is the clientele), but there are some excellent pasta dishes on the menu, which has been the same for a long time now. But why change when the ravioli al sugo di porcini (ravioli in mushroom sauce) or the spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti in a tomato sauce with olives and capers) are consummate hits? The food won't blow anyone's mind, but it will be solid, dependable and just like Mama used to make.

8. Da Marco

The most upscale of Marco Wiles's Italian restaurants, Da Marco is a popular spot for fancy celebrations in Montrose, but it's not just the pomp and circumstance that makes it a Houston hot spot. Wiles flies ingredients in from Italy on a weekly basis, making Da Marco one of the best places in town for truffles during truffle season and Mediterranean seafood year-round. Butternut squash cappellaci is a highlight on the pasta menu, while the whole wild Italian branzino for two or three shows Wiles's mastery of gourmet Italian cuisine.

7. Osteria Mazzantini

Also on the gourmet (as opposed to rustic) side of Italian food is Osteria Mazzantini, the new-ish restaurant from Mockingbird Bistro's John Sheely. Shortly after it opened, Texas Monthly featured it as one of the best new restaurants in the state, thanks in large part to Mazzantini's awesome strip loin, which could hold its own against the best cuts at any high-end steak restaurant. The pasta dishes are creative but still indicative of classic Italian cooking, which Sheely learned from his immigrant ancestors, and in spite of not being cooked in a classic Neapolitan wood-burning oven, the pizzas are delicious as well. Check out happy hour for the best deals.

6. Paulie's

A favorite among neighborhood patrons and industry bigwigs alike, Paulie's is most similar to a casual Italian osteria (in spite of the names, neither Osteria Mazzantini nor Coppa Osteria is as casual and laid-back as an actual osteria). The food is simple but excellently prepared, and the pasta, made in house and served in either full or half portions, is something I find myself craving on a regular basis. Regulars look forward to Thursdays, when osso bucco is on the specials menu, and never leave without at least one of Paulie's famous decorated shortbread cookies. The fact that Camerata, a great wine bar, is right next door doesn't hurt, either.

5. Tony's

The original "it" restaurant for fine dining in Houston, Tony's hasn't slowed down at all in the nearly 50 years since it first opened. Tony Vallone's flagship restaurant has continued to evolve with the times, and the well-oiled kitchen turns out beautiful and challenging dishes that remain true to the restaurant's taste and aesthetic. Of course, if delicate tasting menus at an Italian restaurant aren't really your thing (I tend to prefer big ol' bowls of pasta myself), Tony's has all the steak and noodles you could want, too. The butternut squash pansoti and the veal chop valdostana will prove to any diner that Tony's isn't old and stuffy. It's just as tasty as always.

4. Coppa Ristorante Italiano

The original of the two Coppa concepts (the other being Coppa Osteria in Rice Village), Coppa Ristorante has a loyal following thanks to chef Brandi Key's mastery of pasta and the guidance of Clark Cooper Concepts. Though it's housed in a classy setting, Coppa is a casual eatery, perfect for anything from a working lunch to date night. The spaghetti carbonara — Key's take on the traditional dish — is swoon-worthy, combining wisps of salumi with an egg yolk and Parmesan cream. The pizzas are also fine specimens of Key's know-how, particularly the mushroom pie featuring three different types of fungi and truffle cream.

3. Dolce Vita

Though many people in town swear by Marco Wiles's Da Marco, I prefer the more casual Dolce Vita, whose low lighting, crowded tables and frenetic atmosphere remind me of hip trattorias in Florence. If you order one thing at Dolce Vita, make it the pizza, which is fired quickly in a wood-burning oven and enhanced with distinctive toppings such as clams, pears or butternut squash. For those on a budget, Dolce Vita offers the same great quality as Da Marco for half the price. The wine list, made up entirely of Italian bottles, ain't too shabby, either.

2. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Houston is Giacomo's Cibo e Vino, but I might be biased because it's close enough for me to walk there, then stumble home, my belly full of gnocchi di funghi made in house and some of the best valued wine in the city. Giacomo's is owned by Lynette Hawkins, who spent much of her youth in Italy and fell in love with the food. The lengthy menu is filled with small dishes ideal for sharing, because that's how Hawkins herself likes to eat. It's hard to pick a favorite from the list of little dishes, though — from the eggplant involtini to the ratatouille topped with a fried egg, it's all authentic and delizioso.

1. Ciao Bello

For the best pasta in Houston, Ciao Bello is your place. Chef Bobby Matos churns out innovative new dishes regularly while ensuring that the established menu items are carried out with the same attention to detail that they'd get at a mom-and-pop restaurant in Rome. This is Tony Vallone's casual concept, and it's more indicative than his flagship Tony's­ of the type of food Vallone himself grew up eating. The bolognese is as good as you're going to find anywhere outside of Italy (and maybe even in Italy, too), while a special dish, pastiera di mare, was the best thing I ate in Houston last year. Ciao Bello often gets overlooked in the shadow of Tony's, but if you want authentic, reasonable Italian food with a little flair, you can't do better in town than Ciao Bello.
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Food Trucks

Midtown Mobile Cuisine

Houston's newest food park hopes to bring the party.

Kaitlin Steinberg

At first I didn't even notice it. The sounds of US 59 echo around the concrete lot and the grassy underpass. A light breeze rustles the leaves on a few nearby trees. Syncopated beats pour forth from speakers on a table in the center of a raised deck. From one corner of the lot, a man leans his head out the window of a truck and yells that the grill is fired up.

And then I realize why this scene is so strange. It's quiet. I'm surrounded by food trucks ready to cook hot meals, and there aren't any generators drowning out the sounds of my thoughts.

"I really do want this to be a food-truck haven," Ren Garrett, owner of Midtown Mobile Cuisine, tells me. "They don't have to worry about anything. That's why we have plug-ins. That's how we're able to have a DJ out here, because all those generators aren't going."

It's not one of those food parks in a grassy lot with shade from old oaks keeping diners cool in the summer. It's a concrete slab at 4002 Almeda near where US 59 and State Highway 288 meet, but it does feel like a haven of sorts on a gritty Midtown block. There are lawn chairs and wrought-iron tables with bright orange umbrellas providing shade and a deck where a DJ is set up to play music for the evening's crowd.

If a crowd ever comes.

"The thing is, we have the support of the community, but we've got to have the consistency of the trucks," Garrett says. "The trucks want to go where the money is, but the money won't be here unless the people are here."

The new food park, which opened in April, is still trying to figure out how to draw crowds with good trucks and how to draw good trucks with big crowds. Getting a food park off the ground is sort of a catch-22. Garrett would like to be open seven days a week, but for now, the park operates Thursday through Sunday, because that's when more people come out. But she still has issues getting trucks to commit to a space that isn't yet on everyone's radar. Sometimes trucks cancel for something that they know will bring them more money.

Garrett is a special-events coordinator by trade, so she knows that gathering a crowd can sometimes be a struggle. In order to entice people to Midtown Mobile Cuisine, she's trying to make it as fun as possible. Not only are there food trucks. There's also a DJ. There are games like a giant Jenga and corn hole. There's a concert series featuring Divisi Strings, an electric orchestra that performs contemporary hits. A few vendors are working on arranging some sort of culinary throwdown. Eventually, Garrett hopes to bring in her own snow-cone truck and a car show under the US 59 overpass.

If Garrett seems almost stubbornly committed to making the neighborhood food park work, it's because she's had a business there for more than 20 years. She and her brother Craig own Klassic Hardwood Floors, a reclamation and repurposing business across the street from the food park. Garrett says the food park lot was vacant for as long as she can remember, so it wasn't hard for her to convince the landlord to let her do something with the property. The next step was convincing the city that she could make use of the grassy lot under the overpass. Now she just needs to use those persuasive skills to get trucks and customers to the happening new spot.

On a recent Thursday evening, Midtown Mobile Cuisine welcomed Sticky's Chicken, Soul Cat Cuisine, Flip 'n Patties and Raw Chef Renee Vegan. The DJ, Steez, has already set up, and Soul Cat's Robert Stokes is deep in conversation with Craig about hosting a wings competition. The crowds haven't come yet, but Garrett remains positive that they will.

"Of everything I've been through, this is the hardest, because you're relying not only on your own work but other people as well," Garrett says. "My brother Craig and I are so used to working hard and seeing it pay off. But with this, you just kind of have to wait. We just have to hang in there. It's coming."
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Season's Eating

Summer Food Bucket List

Eat your way through Houston this summer.

Molly Dunn

Summer is a time to relax, enjoy the weather and eat really good food. Thank goodness we live in a city bursting with opportunities to satisfy our adventurous cravings.

We have listed ten food-centric tasks for you to do this summer. Think of it as a bucket list. Get all these things done before the summer is over.

10. Eat at Every Food Truck Park

The number of food truck parks in Houston and the surrounding area has grown significantly over the past several months. Make a trip to each one (Mangum Food Park, Midtown Mobile Cuisine, Houston Food Park and My Food Park HTX) to have breakfast, lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. The Modular, Pi Pizza Truck and Porch Swing Dessertsfrequent Mangum Food Park in northwest Houston; Taco Nuts, Flip 'n Patties and Zeapod Cakery tend to set up shop at My Food Park HTX in the Energy Corridor; and Texas Blizzard likes to hang out at Houston Food Park on St. Emanuel. Check out the newest park, Midtown Mobile Cuisine, which features a rotating lineup of seven food trucks at a time, such as Doughmaker Doughnuts and Detox Truck.

9. Enjoy Ice Cream and Treats at La King's Confectionery

Of course, you should drive to Galveston for the sun, ocean and sand, but you should also make a special trip to the Gulf for ice cream and sodas from La King's Confectionery. Don't stick to just a couple of scoops of ice cream, though. Add some of your favorite frozen treat to any soda from the old-fashioned soda fountain. Sit inside the ice cream parlor, watch the confectioners make taffy and enjoy a stroll along The Strand.

8. Go on Farmers' Market Trips & Picnic Lunches

Head to the Eastside Farmers Market on Saturday (or Sunday) and fill a basket or bag with locally sourced foods to make a picnic lunch. Grab some bread from Angela's Oven or Artisana Bread, then collect duck breast prosciutto from Tejas Heritage Farm and chèvre from Swede Farm for a delightful sandwich. Add some blackberries and plums from Lightsey Farms, or tomatoes and lettuce from Knopp Branch Farm. Throw in some macarons from Maison Burdisso or honey from Bee Wilde for a little something sweet.

7. Order Ribbon Ice in Chinatown

Kaitlin Steinberg wrote recently about the ribbon ice from Nu Cafe in Chinatown. Some call it snow ice, others call it ribbon ice, but either way, it's a Taiwanese dessert that's just as much a treat to eat as it is to watch being prepared. Explore Chinatown's hidden gems, then stop by Nu Cafe or head to SnowBlock Shavery on Rice Boulevard for one of the best ice-cold sweet treats. Rock-hard ice cream blocks are placed in a machine that shaves the block as it is spins, creating tissue-paper-thin ribbons of ice cream. Watch the server catch the ice cream on a plate and create a mountain-high dessert accompanied by fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrups and mochi mango boba.

6. Eat Backstreet Cafe's Seasonal Tomato Menu

Tomatoes are one of the best fruits of the summer, and Backstreet Cafe's seasonal tomato menu is one of the best ways to enjoy them. Chef Hugo Ortega will serve up this menu for brunch, lunch and dinner until the middle of September. Don't miss out on staple tomato dishes like the fried green tomatoes topped with crabmeat rémoulade, or a light and refreshing tomato jalapeño gazpacho. Introduce your palate to bold flavors with the tomato pie served with a small black bean salad, or the blistered cherry tomato tartine with whipped feta cheese, basil and pine nuts.

5. Tour Every Brewery in Houston

Take the 15- to 20-minute tour at Saint Arnold, then spend the rest of the day drinking fresh brews, eating and playing board games with friends in the beer hall. Karbach might be small, but it's a fun place to sample something from a food truck, sit outside, and enjoy a Rodeo Clown or Hopadillo. Buffalo Bayou Brewery offers tours each Saturday from noon until 3 p.m. and includes two pints of beer plus a souvenir glass, all for $10. 8th Wonder Brewery and Members of The League of Extraordinary Brewers don't offer tours, but they do host events, so check out their Facebook pages and websites to see what they're doing next. Take a trip to Missouri City to tour Fort Bend Brewing Company, to Conroe for Southern Star Brewing Company and to Katy for No Label Brewery. Each is different, and you're bound to have a blast at all of them.

4. Pick Blueberries at Moorhead's Blueberry Farm

Spend any weekend morning picking blueberries at Moorhead's Blueberry Farm in Conroe. They go for $2.50 a pound. Then incorporate them into cobblers or pies with Blue Bell ice cream on the side.

3. Be First in Line atKillen's BBQ or CorkScrew BBQ

Wake up early and get your butt to ­Pearland and/or The Woodlands to be the first person in line for tender brisket, ribs and pulled pork. You'll be a happy camper when you get to choose exactly what you want without fear that it's sold out. Especially that banana pudding at Killen's.

2. Check out Saturday Breakfast at Revival Market

Revival Market offers different items on its Saturday morning breakfast menu. Stalk the Facebook page or sign up for the newsletter to get a hint about what's going to be served. And if it's Kolache Saturday, drop all plans and get to Revival Market before the rest of the city does. You don't want to miss out on their kolaches or klobasneks.

1. Eat Crepes from Melange Creperie

Hang out with Buffalo Sean in the morning or early afternoon (Friday to Sunday) at the corner of Westheimer and Taft, where he whips up his signature crepes on his cart's stove top. Choose the ham, egg and cheddar for a savory breakfast, or take the vegetarian route with brie, jams and fruit. Or opt for the sweet combination of banana and Nutella, or strawberry, vanilla crème fraîche and Sinfull Bakery's Everything Granola.
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Restaurant News

Openings & Closings

Upper Kirby is getting a face-lift.

Molly Dunn

It's been a sad past few weeks for the Upper Kirby restaurant scene. Brio Tuscan Grille (3029 Kirby) shuttered just after Cafe Express, Roak, Hendrick's Pub and OTC Patio Bar, all in the same area, closed.

Swamplot reports that a moving crew arrived on June 1 to pack everything up. There's speculation the restaurant was not serving enough customers and was forced to close.

Around the same time, Saint Genevieve at 2800 Kirby closed its doors. The hopping brunch spot and bar opened in 2011, and a representative told CultureMap Houston that the landlords want another tenant to occupy the space. No information about the future tenant has been revealed.

This closing isn't in Upper Kirby: Becks Prime Sportatorium, located inside Memorial City Mall, shuttered on May 31, according to Swamplot. Fortunately the 11 other Becks Prime locations in the Houston area remain open.

In happier news, Pepperoni's Pizza opened at 2710 Montrose next door to BB's Cafe over the weekend of May 31. This small pizza chain serves up gourmet pies like the pesto chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and black olives, and the spicy veggie masala with cayenne buffalo sauce, pineapple, jalapeños, onion, black olive and green pepper. Other menu items include traditional pizzas, calzones, pita sandwiches and subs. Eater Houston mentions that this location will also feature a breakfast pizza menu from which you can grab and go at the drive-through window.

It seems like there's a Pappasito's Cantina, or some other Pappas restaurant, on every street corner. Now visitors to our great city who are staying at the Hilton Americas-Houston (1600 Lamar) don't have to step off the premises to eat excellent Tex-Mex. Catering to the traveling and downtown clientele, this location will feature several special dishes for happy hours. CultureMap Houston's Eric Sandler also notes that the menu has six new ceviches and crudos as healthier options, along with a few heavier and indulgent dishes, such as the queso a la plancha (beef and chicken fajita nachos) plus sugary churros for dessert.

In franchise-expansion news, the second Happy's Pizza location in Houston (and Texas for that matter) has opened at 7903 Beechnut. Aside from pizzas, Happy's serves ribs, chicken wings and fried shrimp. 

Another Chick-fil-A opened at 925 North Loop West on June 5, and as with every Chick-fil-A opening, customers lined up outside the day before in hopes of being among the first 100 in line — those lucky customers receive a year's supply of Chick-fil-A.

Bone Daddy's House of Smoke will open its second location in Houston on Thursday, June 19, at 17381 Tomball Parkway. The Willowbrook restaurant will feature all the popular dishes served at the Bone Daddy's in Webster, such as the Flying Pig sandwich composed of pulled pork, link sausage, ­bacon and maple-glazed ham, and the wrapped and deep-fried smoked brisket, ­jalapeño, corn, onion and pepper.

Sassafras opened for business on May 28 at 5022 Pinemont. This new dive bar was created by the bartenders at Big Star Bar and Grand Prize Bar. Currently Sassafras serves "fancy beer, cheap beer and above average wine," but it promises to start serving liquor in July.

Houstonia's Katharine Shilcutt ­reports that The El Cantina Superior, from restaurateur Ken Bridge, opened at 602 Studewood on June 10. The building previously housed a Texaco gas station but is now home to the new Tex-Mex restaurant filled with ZZ Top memorabilia and posters. Chef David Coffman won't be serving the fajitas with any peppers, though, so you'd better like sweet, caramelized onions with your beef and tortillas.

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2 comments
SkrewstonCupcake
SkrewstonCupcake

Great article as usual gal. "Wow, I don't know who wrote this top 100 recently, but he sure loves his drunk food and and sandwiches!" Ps.. I think you left your jacket ;) -Monica D

SkrewstonCupcake
SkrewstonCupcake

Great article as usual gal. "Wow, I don't know who wrote this top 100 recently, but she sure loves her drunk food and and sandwiches!" Ps.. I think you left your jacket ;) -Monica D

 
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