Rest of the Best 2014: Houston's Top 10 Italian Restaurants

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Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners were announced a while back, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we're continuing to round up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories. Bon appétit!

"The trouble with Italian food is that five or six days later, you're hungry again."

-Comedian George Miller

Ah, Italian food: One of the most recognizable cuisines in America, encompassing pasta and pizza, arguably two of best culinary inventions ever. Italian food is easy to get horribly wrong, though. Fortunately, for a city so proud of our Tex-Mex and seafood and so wild about barbecue and burgers, Houston has some truly great Italian restaurants.

This is thanks in large part to the port of Galveston, which saw wave after wave of Italian immigrants arrive on its shores and settle in the cities surrounding the east Texas coast. Not knowing what else to do and longing for the food of their homeland, they began to open restaurants. We wrote about some of these pioneering restaurateurs in our First Families of Houston Food feature back in February, detailing their histories and how far they've come.

Their awesome culinary legacy is alive and well in Houston at these top ten Italian eateries.

Honorable mention: Coltivare, which has some truly stellar pasta dishes and pizzas, and Vinoteca Poscol, a wine bar with a great menu of small, carefully crafted plates.

10. Arturo Boada Cuisine When Arturo Boada parted ways with his partner at Arturo's Uptown Italiano back in 2011, the ensuing disagreement over recipe and name rights threatened to overshadow Boada's new restaurant as well. But he proved he was back and better than ever when he opened Arturo Boada Cuisine shortly after leaving his original namesake restaurant. The menu contains a medley of Spanish-inspired tapas items and classic Italian dishes, the best of which are the wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas like the "Why Not" Margherita, a near-perfect example of a traditional Italian pie. The Spanish tapas are also pretty great, if you're in the mood for a continental dining experience.

9. Antica Osteria Antica Osteria gets extra points for atmosphere. The cozy, romantic spot is a little old-fashioned (as is the clientele), but there are some excellent pasta dishes on the menu, which has been the same for a long time now. But why change when the ravioli al sugo de porcini (ravioli in mushroom sauce) or the spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti in a tomato sauce with olives and capers) are consummate hits? The food won't blow anyone's mind, but it will be solid, dependable and just like mama used to make.

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8. Da Marco The most upscale of Marco Wiles's Italian restaurants, Da Marco is a popular spot for fancy celebrations in Montrose, but it's not just the pomp and circumstance that makes it a Houston hot spot. Wiles flies ingredients in from Italy on a weekly basis, making Da Marco one of the best places in town for truffles during truffle season and Mediterranean seafood year-round. Butternut squash cappellaci is a highlight on the pasta menu, while the whole wild Italian Branzino for two or three shows Wiles's mastery of gourmet Italian cuisine.

7. Osteria Mazzantini Also on the gourmet (as opposed to rustic) side of Italian food is Osteria Mazzantini, the new-ish restaurant from Mockingbird Bistro's John Sheely. Shortly after it opened, Texas Monthly featured it as one of the best new restaurants in the state, thanks in large part to Mazzantini's awesome strip loin, which could hold its own against the best cuts at any high-end steak restaurant. The pasta dishes are creative but still indicative of classic Italian cooking, which Sheely learned from his immigrant ancestors, and in spite of not being cooked in a classic Neapolitan wood burning oven, the pizzas are delicious as well. Check out happy hour for the best deals.

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6. Paulie's A favorite among neighborhood patrons and industry bigwigs alike, Paulie's is most similar to a casual Italian osteria (in spite of the names, neither Osteria Mazzantini nor Coppa Osteria are as casual and laid-back as an actual osteria). The food is simple but excellently prepared, and the pasta, made in house and served in either full or half portions, is something I find myself craving on a regular basis. Regulars look forward to Thursdays, when osso bucco is on the specials menu and never leave without at least one of Paulie's famous decorated shortbread cookies. The fact that Camerata, a great wine bar, is right next door doesn't hurt either.

5. Tony's The original it-restaurant for fine dining in Houston, Tony's hasn't slowed down at all in the nearly 50 years since it first opened. Tony Vallone's flagship restaurant has continued to evolve with the times, and the well-oiled kitchen turns out beautiful and challenging dishes that remain true to the restaurant's taste and aesthetic. Of course, if delicate tasting menus at an Italian restaurant aren't really your thing (I tend to prefer big ol' bowls of pasta myself), Tony's has all the steak and noodles you could want too. The butternut squash pansoti and the veal chop valdostana will prove to any diner that Tony's isn't old and stuffy. It's just as tasty as always.

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4. Coppa Ristorante Italiano The original of the two Coppa concepts (the other being Coppa Osteria in Rice Village), Coppa Ristorante has a loyal following thanks to chef Brandi Key's mastery of pasta and the guidance of Clark Cooper Concepts. Though it's housed in a classy setting, Coppa is a casual eatery, perfect for anything from a working lunch to date night. The spaghetti carbonara--Key's take on the traditional dish--is swoon-worthy, combining wisps of salumi with an egg yolk and Parmesan cream. The pizzas are also fine specimen's of Key's know-how, particularly the mushroom pie featuring three different types of mushrooms and truffle cream.

3. Dolce Vita Though many people in town swear by Marco Wiles's Da Marco, I prefer the more casual Dolce Vita, whose low lighting, crowded tables and frenetic atmosphere remind me of hip trattorias in Florence. If you order one thing at Dolce Vita, make it the pizza, which is fired quickly in a wood-burning oven and enhanced with distinctive toppings like clams, pears or butternut squash. For those on a budget, Dolce Vita offers the same great quality as Da Marco for half the price. The wine list, made up entirely of Italian bottles, ain't too shabby either.

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2. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Houston is Giacomo's Cibo e Vino, but I might be biased because it's close enough for me to walk there then stumble home, my belly full of gnocchi di funghi made in house and some of the best valued wine in the city. Giacomo's is owned by Lynette Hawkins, who spent much of her youth in Italy and fell in love with the food. The lengthy menu is filled with small dishes ideal for sharing, because that's how Hawkins herself likes to eat. It's hard to pick a favorite from the list of little dishes though--from the eggplant involtini to the ratatouille topped with a fried egg, it's all authentic and delizioso.

1. Ciao Bello For the best pasta in Houston, Ciao Bello is your place. Chef Bobby Matos churns out innovative new dishes regularly, while ensuring that the established menu items are carried out with the same attention to detail that they'd get at a mom-and-pop restaurant in Rome. This is Tony Vallone's casual concept, and it's more indicative of the type of food Vallone himself grew up eating. The bolognese is as good as you're going to find anywhere outside of Italy (and maybe even in Italy, too), while a special dish, pastiera di mare was the best thing I ate in Houston last year. Ciao Bello often gets overlooked in the shadow of Tony's, but if you want authentic, reasonable Italian food with a little flair, you can't do better in town than Ciao Bello.

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