The March issue of Texas Monthly features signature dishes from some of the best restaurants around the state, all gathered together on one long metal skewer. Representing Houston, there's barbecue pork banh mi from Don Café, a whole crab from Cajun Kitchen and, right in the center, a ruddy pink strip loin with a shiny brown sear from a new Houston restaurant that's already getting a lot of positive press for its upscale versions of classic dishes, including the bistecca in the photo.
I was surprised when I first saw the steak, though. It's not, perhaps, the dish most indicative of the restaurant. Even the chefs were surprised.
"Texas Monthly came to shoot our food, and they asked for the strip loin," one of them told me. "We thought they might want pasta, but they wanted the bistecca."
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Midollo: $16 Funghi antipasti: $14 Sformato: $14 Lattuga salad: $10 Garganelli: $18/$26 Bucatini: $18/$26 Ravioli: $12/$32 Funghi Pizza: $18 Bistecca: $39
Go behind the scenes of this week's cafe review in our slideshow, "A Closer Look at Osteria Mazzantini."
Pasta would indeed seem the likely choice at Osteria Mazzantini, chef John Sheely's venture into Italian cuisine, in honor of his heritage. It would seem the likely choice, that is, until you taste the strip loin. One bite, and I was sold. It is indeed cover-worthy.
I ordered the steak medium rare, and that's exactly how it came to my table — dark brown and with bits of smoky char on the outside, and gloriously tender and pink on the inside. It's served atop a bed of long, skinny fingerling potatoes — which also have a nice char and a hint of truffle — slightly smashed to soak up the juice from the beef. Mixed in are golf-ball-size roasted cipollini, or "little onions," sour with the vinegary aftertaste of a pickle but still as sweet as the ripest yellow onion imaginable. I could have eaten them like candy.
The fact that I consider the steak to be the most impressive menu item at the Italian restaurant is not an insult to the pasta or pizzas, both of which are very good, but a testament to the skill of the chef. I am not a steak person. I never crave steak. I crave pasta and ice cream and even the occasional salad, but never steak. This strip loin, however...
A few bites in I was already planning a return trip to Osteria Mazzantini, a visit during which I would not share the steak with a friend, as I had done initially. No, I would come back and I would have a strip steak all my own. I would pop each of those semi-translucent onions in my mouth, relishing in their tartness and the way in which they serve as a foil to the lean, supple meat, and in doing so, enhance the flavor of both. I would eat the entire dish by myself, and I would be wonderfully satisfied.
You'd be hard-pressed ever to leave Osteria Mazzantini dissatisfied, though, since the menu, the space and the wine list include something for everyone. Even from night one, when I went there not planning to write about the place but purely to eat, I found the restaurant already operating like an old fixture, like a delightful Italian fine-dining institution that had been established for years. There were some hiccups, sure — too much salt here, dry bread there — but even time-honored restaurants experience that once in a while.
Now, five and a half months after opening, Osteria Mazzantini is on top of its game. It may not be the picture of perfection that the Texas Monthly article suggests, but from what I can tell, it's pretty darn close.
Go behind the scenes of this week's cafe review in our slideshow, "A Closer Look at Osteria Mazzantini."
John Sheely surprised a lot of people when he announced he'd be opening an upscale Italian restaurant in the ritzy new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak Boulevard. Sheely was already chef and owner of Mockingbird Bistro, a somewhat casual restaurant and wine bar with a focus on French-influenced American cuisine. He had previously owned Riviera Grill, where he'd showcased the foods of the French Riviera. So when word got out that the French-trained chef with the Irish name was opening an Italian restaurant, people scratched their heads.
It turns out Sheely is a descendant of the Mazzantini family, who immigrated to Galveston from Tuscany in the late 1800s. He grew up eating rustic Italian food in his mother's kitchen in Houston, and he had long dreamed of opening a restaurant to showcase her fine recipes.
The food at Osteria Mazzantini isn't exactly what I'd call rustic, though, unless lasagna stuffed with sweetbreads or an $18 half order of carbonara is rustic. It's thoughtfully prepared and on the expensive side without ever being stuffy, in spite of the location and the generally older, reserved clientele.
The space seems designed to welcome a variety of diners. Younger crowds gather outside on the patio, a space rimmed with trees and planters that partially block the view and the noise of busy Post Oak nearby. The bar also welcomes a hip crowd eager to sample signature cocktails or indulge in a glass or two of vino. Off to the side there's a private meeting room that also serves as a dining area when not reserved. It's brick-lined and slightly less modern (and, in my opinion, more hospitable) than the main dining room, which feels almost corporate in its subdued modernity, as if catering to visiting conference groups who don't really want to feel as if they're in Houston, or any specific city. The main room is an appealing space in the way comfortable shoes are appealing. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that.
Diners seeking the same safe, unchallenging experience from the food are in for a treat. Sheely admits he isn't seeking to reinvent Italian food, but he does want to put his own spin on it. Traditional bucatini alla carbonara is made with eggs, cheese, olive oil, black pepper and pancetta, but in Sheely's version crispy pork jowls also make an appearance. I'd rate this among the best carbonaras in the city, thanks to the impeccably prepared fresh pasta cooked al dente and the fatty chunks of pancetta that are almost too rich but for the sharp black pepper that floods the mouth with spice at just the right moment of every bite.
Another unique offering is the sformato, described on the menu as baked cauliflower flan, but in truth more of a custard. There's a delicate round of cauliflower soufflé (a sformato is essentially a dense soufflé) atop a tart pickled apricot surrounded by an earthy cauliflower crema with all the richness of cream, the slight sweetness of a drizzle of balsamic and the nutty flavor of the presumably roasted cauliflower itself. A sprinkle of bright-green watercress cuts through the heft of the crema, much like the black pepper cuts the fat of the pancetta in the carbonara. It's always almost too much, but not quite.
Even the pizza, available only at lunch, skirts the line between rustic and gourmet. It's the crusty lovechild of the best doughy delivery pizzas and the thin, crispy Neapolitan pies we've become accustomed to finding at fine-dining establishments in Houston. I adore the Funghi, a sturdy vegetarian option with a luscious layer of melted fontina and taleggio cheeses and an alluring, loamy mix of wild mushrooms accented by thyme and sweet caramelized onions.
I was impressed with another mushroom dish, too: the Funghi on the antipasti menu. It seems to be the same mix of wild mushrooms found on the pizza, only here it's served in a small bowl on a bed of tangy goat cheese polenta and melted fontina with a simple, tart balsamic jus to bring all the flavors together. The salads at Mazzantini are fine, but if you want vegetables, order the mushrooms.
If you want meat, you're in the right place. The midollo is prepared simply and beautifully, two bones brimming with fatty marrow arranged on a plate with grilled bread and chimichurri-esque sauce. The garganelli pasta is swimming in a ragù with tender braised wild boar so soft that it's nearly the same texture as the rolled pieces of pasta. Unlike a traditional ragù, this is on the sweet side — but not too sweet — thanks to the addition of poached pears and a hint of bright orange zest.
Perhaps my favorite dish on the menu is also the one I had the biggest issue with. I swooned over the sweetbreads and kale ravioli, three delicate rounds presented on a long plate and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and lemon juice, then finished with pine nuts and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. All the disparate elements — bitter kale, meaty sweetbreads, sour lemon, earthy cheese and nuts, vinegar — marinate and play off each another. Every bite reveals new flavor combinations, so though the plate was small, it was mighty.
So what was the issue? The brown butter sauce. Don't get me wrong: It's all I could hope for from a thin, toasty brown butter sauce. But there was so much of it. My first bite of ravioli found me accidentally inhaling some excess oil and choking on it. By the time I finished the dish, there was a significant pool of butter remaining. I loved the notion of sweetbreads and kale enhanced by the accompanying elements, but I couldn't get past the feeling that I was drinking butter while eating pasta. Nothing a large glass of red wine can't fix, but I'm still hoping to find less oil next time I enjoy the ravioli.
And there will definitely be a next time.
In spite of the swanky hotel vibe the atmosphere of Mazzantini evokes and the fact that it's now big-time enough to make the cover of Texas Monthly, Sheely has done his due to maintain a level of casual familiarity about the place that keeps it from being stuffy.
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There are local elements to the family-inspired restaurant. Slow Dough makes the herbed bread served before every meal with ramekins of whipped lardo butter and rosemary olive oil. I recognized some of the same waiters and bartenders during my recent meals as I'd seen on opening night. In an area so rife with server turnover, Mazzantini has managed to breed loyalty early on.
The same chefs, Sheely and his executive chef, Paul Lewis, have been in the kitchen nearly every night since long before the restaurant opened, testing and then executing modified family recipes. Sommelier Samantha Porter has crafted a wine list as personal as it is intriguing, including a wine stomped by her own two feet during an internship in France. And at the close of most evenings, one or both of the chefs emerge from the kitchen to survey the dining room and chat with patrons, eager to hear what they thought of the meal.
Sheely's family has come a long way from immigrants who didn't speak a word of English and cooked from the heart in a tiny Houston kitchen. They may not see themselves in every dish on the menu, but I have no doubt they'd be proud.