When Alberto Lombardi opened Taverna at River Oaks District over the weekend, it was not his first rodeo, or perhaps more accurately, risotteria. This is the eighth location of the pasta, pizza and risotto specialist. It's one of seven members of Lombardi Family Concepts, which also includes Kai Asian Bistro, Lombardi's Romagna Mia and Toulouse Café & Bar, which opened its first Houston link at River Oaks District in April.
Toulouse's debut received a great deal of fanfare thanks to the hiring of Philippe Schmit, late of Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. But amid poor word of mouth (including a two-and-a-half star average on Yelp), Schmit is now out of the picture, replaced by Laurent Dubourg. "When you do a lot of volume it's difficult at certain times to keep the quality up if you’re not well organized," Lombardi says, diplomatically. "There’s a lot of pressure."
Dubourg is already working with the restaurant group's executive chef Renato DiPirro to improve performance. That includes upgrading the cuts of meat used in the steak frites and salade Niçoise, changing the duck confit recipe and adding "eye appeal" to the oft-ordered lobster salad.
But Lombardi is already very pleased with his chef de cuisine at Taverna, Bruno Amato, an alum of the Il Fornaio restaurant group, and onetime chef at Houston's Hotel Granduca. "Hiring a chef is like getting engaged," muses Lombardi. "Before you get married, you want to know what you're getting." In Amato's case, that's a smiling demeanor and a firm hand with pasta.
His hand-rolled ravioli are nearly translucent, more like a very fine dumpling skin, holding chard, spinach and ricotta, than a thick pasta. On the other hand, his garganelli are toothsome enough to stand up to a rich bath of chunky Bolognese. For the chichi River Oaks crowd, there's another Bolognese, made with Main lobster meat and served over homemade spaghetti. The paglia e fieno centers around green and white taglioni woven with chicken, wild mushrooms and truffle cream.
But it's not all pasta. Starters include stone-oven-baked focaccia and salads but otherwise lean on seafood. Tuna tartare is flavored with mango and preserved lemon, charred octopus is paired with eggplant confit and fritto misto contains not only fried calamari and rock shrimp, but also carrots, zucchini and shallots. Larger plates include four risotto dishes (with truffles, seafood, shrimp and prosecco or burrata and prosciutto), meaty entrées such as chicken under a brick and veal Milanese, and pizzas. Those are available on a gluten-free crust and span from classics such as Margherita and bianca to more innovative combos like the California, which pairs chicken, mozzarella and tomatoes with avocado, feta and cilantro.
Desserts include the above Nutella tiramisú as well as olive oil cake and mint panna cotta.
Lunch is served daily, except Saturday and Sunday, when it's replaced by brunch. The first thing to know about that meal: Mimosas are $2. Most lunch and dinner items are available at that time, too, alongside omelets, polenta shrimp and grits, bagels and lox, and an Italian take on steak and eggs.