Puccia is like pita bread’s Italian cousin, but thicker and with a softer texture. The outside is toasted to a mild crisp in a pan and the bread is then used for simple sandwiches. At lunchtime, Sud Italia offers three types of puccia in the style of the Puglia region. The one named after the city of Foggia is lavished with luscious ’nduja, a salami spread tinged with hot pepper. Fiery red oil sneaks out under the melted sheet of Provolone on top, tinting both bread and plate with its spicy richness.
Accompanying the puccia sandwich is a diminutive salad that makes up for its small size with its aesthetic charm. A pastel-green lengthwise slice of cucumber is a circular swath encompassing upright endive, halved cherry tomato and spring greens in mustard vinaigrette. Rarely is lunch so pretty. This simple sandwich-and-salad combination is one of the best light lunches in Houston.
Sud Italia is in a quaint house in Rice Village. It used to house Bistro des Amis. When Bistro closed at the end of February, in a mere six weeks Sud Italia opened to take its place. It’s helmed by longtime Arturo’s Uptown Italiano general manager Shanon Scott. (Arturo’s itself shuttered around the same time to make way for Añejo, a high-end Tex-Mex concept from the same company that runs Max’s Wine Dive and The Tasting Room.)
The interior has been redone for the Italian theme. The cream-colored walls and terra cotta tile floor are so evocative that it seems strange to look out the window and not see the foam of an azure sea reaching up to touch white sands. Nope, it’s still just the congested streets and shops of Rice Village. Oh well.
Sud Italia fulfills the promise of its name. This is a place that really understands the appeal of simple Southern Italian dishes. Nothing complex is needed. All that’s required is the beauty of good, flavorful ingredients and a suave understanding of how to use them. A good example: a bath of garlicky, tomato-based pomodoro sauce served to simply bind loose chunks of fennel-laden sausage to the small, saucer-like orecchiette. The smart addition of wilted rapini bolstered the dish with slight bitterness, breaking up uniformity and ensuring it was never ponderously heavy.
The thick, double-boned lamb chops with a generous sprinkling of toasty almond slices are worth fighting over. Fortunately, there are two, although the prospect of having to give one away is valid justification for dining alone. Tender asparagus spears jut over the top in emerald spires while a moat of red wine sauce minds the bottom. That wine sauce was another study in simplicity. It was left thin rather than boiled down to a daunting, syrupy consistency and that allowed some tannic sturdiness to remain — a bolstering addition to an already resplendent feast-on-a-plate.
There are hidden gems within that glorious tower of lamb and asparagus: halved crescents of confit fingerling potatoes, their golden skins dried and crisped to papyrus-like delicacy. The slow, gentle roasting converted the exposed interiors to dense mahogany, yet the inside remained soft and creamy white.
There are a few dishes that don’t achieve the heights Sud Italia is capable of reaching. The pale ruby interior of NY tagliata, or strip steak, was well within medium-rare territory, but the drizzle of sweet balsamic reduction was more a clanging bell than sweet harmony. A bed of arugula added nothing but greenery, and two big radicchio leaves sat on the sidelines as if they were looking for something to do. (At least there were more of those delectable confit fingerlings on the side.)
Similarly, rigatoni with wild boar, or rigatoni alla cinghiale, was less exotic and exciting than it sounded on the menu. The cubes of wild boar were dense and dry and there wasn’t enough ragù to tie the dish together. The end result was no more exciting than a weeknight meal at home.
A shot of limoncello at the end was a lovely cap on a fine evening, but most of the actual desserts could use a little help. The exception to the rule was a worthwhile slice of tart limoncello pie. It was quite reminiscent of a lemony cheesecake, right down to the crumbled graham-cracker crust. The warm chocolate cake seemed woefully pedestrian and would have been right at home at a TGI Fridays. An otherwise pleasant tiramisu was overburdened with weighty layers of mascarpone cream, and the thin layers of ladyfingers were simply too insubstantial to balance it out.
Good service is not in short supply at Sud Italia. Check-ins are regular and well-timed. Feel free to ask for wine and food recommendations. These come easily from the knowledgeable servers.
There’s a valet at dinnertime that costs five bucks plus tip and it’s worth every dime to avoid dealing with the annoying puzzle of Rice Village parking. There is no parking attendant at lunchtime, so the options are street parking (unlikely, but there’s the occasional miracle); the weird, tiny lot behind the house that’s only three cars wide (if it’s only for employees, there’s no sign saying so); or The Village Arcade garage across the street.
No parking is allowed in the lot next door, where confusing, outdated signs bark “No French Bistro Parking,” a reference to the prior restaurant, Bistro des Amis. There’s a fire hydrant directly in front of the restaurant that can’t be blocked, just to add to the fun. For heaven’s sake, carefully read street signs or risk getting saddled with forking over $350 to bail your vehicle out of the car pokey. At least the food is worth the hassle.
Unlike Bistro des Amis, Sud Italia isn’t BYOB, so don’t show up toting your own bottle. Regrettably, red wines aren’t temperature-controlled, so that glass of Sikelia Nero d’Avola from Sicilia will be as refreshing as a muggy Houston morning and just as warm. It’s better to stick with the chilled white or sparking selections. There a dearth of rosé on the menu — only two by the glass — but requesting one by the bottle conjured an iGreco Savu Rosato from Calabria — the “toe” of Italy. Like the land encompassed by the sea on three sides, the lush, fruity wine seemed imbued with notes of salty sea air. It’s a keeper and hopefully will become a permanent fixture on the wine list.
On an evening visit, the excessive crowd noise inside the old house sent us scurrying to a table on the patio. Sometimes old things are charming, but the rickety tables with uneven wood slat surfaces were anything but. A busboy noticed the spastic dance ours was doing and adjusted one leg with a rubber doorstop. It was nice not to have to point it out, though. It’s another example of the good service that can be expected at Sud Italia.
Wobbly old table aside, sitting on the patio was an even better choice than anticipated. The June evening was unexpectedly temperate, and there was a blissful view of the orange setting sun against a rain-shower-washed blue sky. Sud Italia can be counted on to provide a wonderful meal. Just bring a good friend to provide the conversation and let the minutes drift away.
2347 University Boulevard, 713-664-7571. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
Arancini di riso $11
Puccia Puglia foggia $12
Orecchiette con salsiccia $16
Rigatoni alla cinghiale $23
NY tagliata $28
Costolette d’agnello $32
Branzino forno $38
Chocolate cake $7.50
Limoncello pie $7.50