Restaurant Reviews

Impressive Steaks and Family Heritage on the Menu at Osteria Mazzantini

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."

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.
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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.

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Kaitlin Steinberg