First Look at Osteria Mazzantini by Chef John Sheely

Opening night at Osteria Mazzantini drew a decent crowd, but the kitchen and waitstaff were well prepared for the evening's service after a week of soft opening previews with a perpetually packed house.

The upscale Italian restaurant is the newest venture by Mockingbird Bistro chef/owner John Sheely in honor of his mother's Italian heritage. It's tucked away between offices and the parking garage of the new BBVA Compass Plaza on Post Oak Boulevard, but unlike its rather austere surroundings, Osteria Mazzantini is homey and inviting.

The front of the restaurant features a large outdoor patio with a view of the tall, mirrored building across the way. It's not the most obvious location for a chic osteria, but the view (or lack thereof) and the noise from Post Oak will be the last thing on anyone's mind after tasting the food.

A diner could sit and sip wine for hours nestled in the warm, gold dining room lit by soft yellow bulbs and candles on each table. The bar is already a popular hangout, drawing a larger crowd late on a Monday evening than the dining area. The focal point of the bar is the back wall of light colored bright broken in the middle by a large glass window that looks in on the wine storage room where dozens of bottles stretch up toward the ceiling in neat rows.

The wine list was designed by Sommelier Samantha Porter, who chose to designate which bottles are organic and which are produced by female vintners, a nice touch on a list of exceptional Italian vino.

Though the dining room was no longer full by 8:30 p.m., the waitstaff stood at attention near a wall by the kitchen. If a diner so much as glanced up from his food and looked around, a waiter would be by his side in an instant to ask if he could get anything. The waiters were able to give food and wine recommendations, and the food arrived promptly and beautifully plated.

The extensive menu of Italian classics with a modern edge is rustic in theory but elegant in execution. A simple starter of toasted bread with herbed olive oil is elevated by the quality of the bread and the strong, dark green, almost bitter oil. Though I was eager to try everything on the menu, I stuck with a few classic dishes because I wanted to see how they measured up to traditional Italian cuisine.

My appetizer of polenta with five varieties of mushrooms (two of them wild) was the epitome of Italian comfort food: warm, rich, creamy and hearty. Surprisingly, the minute differences in the mushroom flavors was evident, which gave different dimensions to every bite. For the primi course, I ordered bucatini alla carbonara, which was not as rich as I'm accustomed to with a carbonara sauce. The crispy, salty pork jowls sprinkled throughout it were divine though, and added a nice textural element to an otherwise silky dish.

I was able to try only a single bite of the lamb tenderloin from a friend's plate, but from that single bite, I was able to tell that it was some of the best lamb I've ever eaten. It wasn't overly gamey, and it barely required chewing. I'm not generally a big fan of lamb, but I'll be ordering that dish next time I go to Mazzantini.

Another standout is the cappelletti stuffed with veal, pork and spinach. I didn't actually intend to order this. I thought I'd ordered a side dish of roasted brussels sprouts, but after tasting the cappelletti doused in a rich tomato cream sauce, I've decided it's the best mistake either I or my waiter ever made. I like to think he knew I was headed in the wrong direction with the brussels sprouts, so he decided to set me straight. Whatever the reason behind the mixup, the fresh cappelletti filled with tender meat made me one happy diner.

For dessert, I tried the torta d'oliva, an orange an olive oil cake topped with olive oil gelato and zabaglione. The cake itself was a bit dry, but the flavors were wonderful, and I was pleased that I could actually taste the earthy olive oil in both the cake and the gelato.

Four courses and a glass of wine (and a generous tip) set me back nearly $100, which is a fair price for executive chef Paul Lewis' stylish take on rustic Italian fare.

Though it can be risky to check out a new restaurant for the first time on opening night, Osteria Mazzantini is already functioning like a place that's been in business for years. And I see no reason why it won't be in business for years, joining the ranks of the most lauded Italian restaurants in Houston. Sheely's Italian mama would be proud.

For more photos of the interior (with better lighting than in my photos), check out Osteria Mazzantini's Facebook page.

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