First Look at Coltivare in The Heights

Waiting for a much-anticipated restaurant to open is a delicious dilemma, and last week a dozen food writers were able to a first glimpse (and taste) at Coltivare, the new casual Italian dinner spot from "the Revival Market guys" Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera.

Slated to open on Wednesday, January 22, Coltivare had been wrangling with the city of Houston over parking, an issue that has finally been resolved to allow the restaurant to keep its 3,000-square-foot urban garden, from which the restaurant will source menu ingredients. During our brief tour of the garden, Weber and Pera explained that their goal was to always have a working garden, not something merely ornamental, and they estimated that the fight over keeping the space cost them six to seven months during the planning process.

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The atmosphere, like the food, feels carefully crafted, yet comfortable.

What can diners expect at Coltivare? Dishes that spring from Italian roots, but that showcase local ingredients with a modern American twist. If that sounds convoluted, it's not; the food is simple (not simplistic) and the menu approachable, in terms of both dishes and price point--the most expensive dishes on the menu at the moment are a $30 Revival Pork Roast, and a butcher's cut steak that changes daily and is sold at market price. Pizzas range from $11 to $14, and pasta dishes start at $10--including Chef Pera's favorite,Cacio e Pepe: a strand pasta with black pepper, Parmigiano, and olive oil. Small plates, snacks, and salads are all priced at around $10 or less, and while Coltivare waits for its liquor licensing to be complete ("Anywhere from a week to a month," said Weber) BYOB will be welcome.

The space Coltivare occupies is stunning, both inside and out. "Pretty much everything in here, except for those three wall sconces, is about one hundred years old. Almost everything was reclaimed from somewhere else," Weber told me. "We wanted this place to feel 30 years old the second we opened. The table tops are made from wood we got from an old sugar plantation, the boards on the wall, the shiplap, the zinc bar--all reclaimed from somewhere else."

The restaurant is a natural extension of Revival Market, which sits just three blocks away on White Oak in the Heights, and part of the fun is cooking for neighbors who are already friends, says Weber. "We have the coolest group of regulars you could want, and most of them live within a couple of miles of Revival. We have people we see three times a day, people whose kids we've watched grow up. We are proud to bring something to the neighborhood we felt was missing, and to people we already know. It sounds like a cliché, but we really believe in that 'Southern hospitality' philosophy."

Of the many dishes tasted a few were clear standouts, most notably the Cacio e Pepe and the crisp sweetbreads, which were my personal favorite. If you have an Italian grandmother, the hearty, simple Cacio e Pepe will bring you back to somewhere safe and warm--it's the ultimate in comfort food. The sweetbreads were among the best I've ever eaten, with a light, crispy exterior and a soft, pillow-y core--if they weren't so rich, I would have popped them like candy. Of the three pizzas we tried, the stinging nettles with fennel, chili, and feta was the winner for me; a perfect combination of heat and sweet. Even though the Meyer lemon and goat cheese pizza pairs two of my most favorite and least favorite ingredients (respectively), I was able to appreciate the combination--especially with the addition of salty green olives.

If you have a few minutes this weekend, swing by and take a look at the gorgeous urban garden, particularly the herb garden "walls" that hug the back side of the space. And mark your calendars--Coltivare opens this Wednesday, and you could be first in line.

Coltivare will be open Fridays and Saturday from 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; and will be closed on Tuesdays. Don't forget to BYOB; once the license is secure, Coltivare will operate as a "members club."

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