Summer is all but over. In some parts of the world this time of year signals the advent of chilly weather and the end of outdoor season. So long shorts and T-shirts, hello hot tea and head colds. But Houston isn't one of those parts. The end of summer here signals the end of "too hot to do anything" season. The cool 80 degree winds of fall bring with them a return to normalcy and a desire to step out into the world once more.
In that spirit, we bring you a new weekly review column — Upper Crust. Each week we'll review a different H-Town pizza joint, from new to old, posh to dive, and give you the lowdown on its offerings and quality. It's a cheesy gig, but someone's got to do it.
When chef Ryan Pera received a 2018 nod as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southwest category, it was his cozy Heights pizza garden, Coltivare, that gave him the recognition. The small rustic pizza kitchen is, in a word, beloved. In 2018 it rose to No. 4 on Alison Cook's heralded (and equally controversial) Top 100 Houston restaurants list.
Opened in 2014 at 3320 White Oak, the super intimate ristorante is the flagship property of Pera and partner Morgan Weber's growing restaurant empire, Agricole Hospitality.
Combined indoor and outdoor dining areas seat less than 100 guests, with a policy that caps parties at no more than six. While the restaurant's no reservations policy was known to cause multiple-hour waits in the its early days (as noted in this 2014 review by the Houston Press' Kaitlin Steinberg), five years later, the lines are more reasonable — nonexistent on a Monday. One benefit of Houston's ever growing dining scene is the discernible lack of sacred cows. Exclusive reservations and tables are more and more a thing of the past (with a notable exception in Johnny Rhodes' 13-seat Indigo).
With its minimalist approach to wood-fired pizza, simple yet refined pastas and an ingredient focused menu, Coltivare is both a neighborhood haunt and an elevated expression of Italian cuisine in a city not known for doing it much justice. Pera's signature raised crusts are doughier than Neapolitan, though reminiscent of the simplicity and purity of the style. His pies, while sophisticated, feature such straightforward ingredients you're often left wondering if it's pizza or bread you're moaning in delight over.
The staple tomato, basil, mozzarella is indicative of a classic Margarita, only with more dough and less of everything else. Its distinctive lack of sauce was a welcome touch. Less welcome was its lack of cheese. More mozzarella would undoubtedly take it from great to damn near perfect.
The chicken, prosciutto, tomato, sage and saba pie was significantly more ingredient heavy than our first. While it lacks both cheese and sauce, the flat-bread style pie is the perfect conduit for showcasing Pera's truly divine crusts. Smoky grilled chicken and thoroughly salted prosciutto play excellently against the saba's subtle sweetness and the pillowy comfort of the bready dough.
Pastas here are equally revered. With minimalist sauces and basic ingredients like olive oil, goat cheese and Parmesan, each plate draws focus where it should — toward the pasta, not away. Ricotta gnocchi with Parmesean, greens, and a balsamic drizzle is a bowl of utter comfort and joy, a taste of the Venetian home you never knew you left.
Perhaps too posh a meal for your everyday pizza cravings, Coltivare is nonetheless a most necessary Houston dining institution. A concept responsible for normalizing excellent Italian fare in a city full of ragu-soaked spaghetti bowls and pizzas that belong in Chuck E. Cheese. While we may have shot ourselves in the foot by kicking the series off this way, what better standard to hold other Houston pizza kitchens to moving forward?