Chef/owner John Sheely shows off the restaurant's signature "Make Lardo, Not War" shirts. At top right, the "hot dog" features housemade Italian fennel sausage.

Just in case there was any question as to chef John Sheely's own Italian heritage, his Mazzantini cousins on the distaff side of Sheely's family showed up earlier this week at Osteria Mazzantini—his new Italian restaurant that bears his mother's maiden name—to cheers and applause. Osteria Mazzantini is still in its soft opening phase, hosting primarily friends and family while it gives both its dishes and its service a test run. But if this early run is any indication, Osteria Mazzantini should have no trouble at all once it opens its doors to the public next week.

Osteria Mazzantini
2200 Post Oak Blvd., Suite140
713-993-9898
osteriamazzantini.com

Sheely, whose popular Mockingbird Bistro has occupied the neutral territory between Montrose and River Oaks for 11 years, describes Osteria Mazzantini as "Mockingbird without the tablecloths." Despite this, the Italian restaurant still bears the same sort of rustic glam that has made Mockingbird a destination.

Here, instead of gargoyles, there are blown glass light fixtures hanging like jewels from the tray ceiling in the dining room. Instead of a turn-of-the-century mahogany bar with a line of barstools, there is a large and welcoming bar area that flanks a massive private dining room. Instead of a laundromat as its next door neighbor, Osteria Mazzantini's expansive patio abuts the future home of Hugo Ortega's new restaurant, Caracol, both of them tenants in the shiny new BBVA Compass tower that opened on Post Oak Blvd. just a few months ago.

Chef Paul Lewis brought key members of his staff along with him from Cullen's. At top right, the chicken and duck liver mousse features a thin layer of balsamic jelly.

Sheely has hired British-born chef Paul Lewis to help interpret his direction for Osteria Mazzantini's food, which is meant to reflect the Gulf Coast Italian roots of the Mazzantini family who first settled in Galveston in the 1880s after leaving Tuscany. Lewis seems more than capable of the task, as evidenced by the rustic yet modern Italian dishes I sampled on Wednesday night at a media dinner.

"We're not trying to reinvent Italian food," Lewis told me over a simple plate of roasted bone marrow with toast and parsley salad. "Italian food is best when you don't overthink it." To that end, the menu is composed primarily of pastas (all of which are made in-house), pizzas, Gulf seafood dishes, and simple bar bites like a "hot dog" of housemade Italian sausage on a crusty bun, a ramekin of sweet roasted peppers on the side.

It was the bar, in fact, where I spent most of my evening sampling both dishes and drinks from master bartender Kimberly Paul. Lewis brought both Paul and his pastry chef, Kelsey Hawkins, up to Houston with him from his last post as executive chef at Cullen's in Clear Lake. I have a soft spot for chefs whose staff follow them; it says a lot for that person as a cook and a boss—and both Hawkins and Paul are clearly happy to be a part of creating Mazzantini's menu.

At top left, one of Kimberley Paul's signature cocktails. At top right, the halibut with tomato and caper salsa.

For Paul, who's spent 25 years behind the bar (longer than her 23-year marriage, she laughed), this new post meant being given complete creative freedom. I hadn't even considered the cocktail program at Mazzantini prior to being presented with her list of 10 Italian-inspired drinks, each one more interesting and well-composed as the last. It was her Uno I enjoyed most: an Old Fashioned glass rinsed with Laphroiag before being filled with grapefruit soda, Aperol, and Buffalo Trace bourbon.

Hawkins was excited about the opportunity to showcase the more savory side of desserts, preferring to serve items like housemade olive oil gelato and a Meyer lemon tart with a salty, crispy shortbread crust. There's even a deconstructed tiramisu with an affogato pourover, the ideal end to a meal of fritto misto with fried chicken livers and veal sweetbreads with a spicy mayonnaise on the side or the fat, fresh piece of halibut with a caper and tomato salsa that I all but inhaled.

This isn't tired old Italian food, nor is it fussy and conceptual. Instead, Osteria Mazzantini occupies a refreshing middle ground where the dishes are modern yet accessible: where you can get a dish of black pepper-and-pancetta carbonara goosed with crispy pork jowls, or a simple margherita pizza with fresh mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce. If you're in the market for old-school red sauce and meatballs, Maggiano's is just across the street. Otherwise, Osteria Mazzantini is poised to become the city's new Italian darling. I'm glad to have gotten a seat at the bar while it was still quiet; I can't imagine empty seats will be easy to come by for quite a while starting next week.

 

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