Robb Walsh's Top 10 Italian Eateries
Owner Efisio Farris has kept Arcodoro focused on the unique flavors of Sardinia, offering soups such as sa fregula kin arsellas with clams in a saffron broth, paella with saffron scampi and calamari, and regional red and white wines. This is one of the only places in town to taste the Sardinian dried fish roe called bottarga—try it in the “Linguine su Barchile” with clams and tomatoes. The lively bar is a popular happy-hour hangout, and an interesting brunch offers Italian egg dishes such as frittatas, polenta with scrambled eggs and Italian sausage, and more.
Ciao Bello’s elegant salads, super-thin pizzas, and delicate house-made pastas prove that Houston’s Italian-food godfather, Tony Vallone, has a lighter side. Try the amazing stuffed pansoti and ravioli, as well as the broad pappardelle with Bolognese sauce, the best variation on “spag bol” in town. If you see fettuccine with fresh garden peas, Italian ham, and wild mushrooms in cream sauce on the daily special list, order it. For dessert, there’s Italian wedding cake made with mounds of whipped cream and fresh strawberries. The dining room here is very comfortable, but the covered patio is a real treat when the weather cooperates.
Morgan Weber, who, along with chef Ryan Pera, also owns Revival Market a few blocks down the street, designed Coltivare’s handsome worn-wood interior. Outdoor tables sit practically in picking distance from the raised-bed gardens, where the restaurant grows most of its herbs and some of its salad ingredients. Appetizers include seasonal produce like radishes with butter and sea salt, and Italian spicy pickles. Don’t miss the bready pizzas, seafood pastas, or fish dishes such as “bycatch baccala,” which showcases underutilized Gulf species. Standout entrées include fried sweetbreads with anchovies and grilled chicken with pine nuts and pickled grapes.
Coppa Ristorante Italiano
While the cognoscenti may turn up their noses at the spaghetti carbonara here because it includes cream sauce, Coppa’s rich bacon-and-egg pasta wantonly seduces those less pure. The house-made porcini-flavored pappardelle with Italian braised brisket is also an amazing plate of noodles. Chef Brandi Key offers a short list of imaginative pizzas—try the “ham and eggs,” with air-dried pork shoulder and tiny quail eggs—but Italian seafood salads are the surprise stars here. The insalata di frutti di mare includes lobster, shrimp, calamari, sweet campari tomatoes, hand-torn basil leaves, fresh mint, mizuna, and arugula, while the Tuscan kale salad comes with house-made “tuna conserva,” fresh tuna lightly poached in olive oil.
Da Marco, a friendly spot with a smallish dining room inside an old house, features modern Italian delicacies that can be hard to find in Houston. Chef/owner Marco Wiles, from the Friuli region of Northern Italy, makes frequent trips back home for inspiration, including an annual holiday truffle-hunting excursion. Artichoke in lemon sauce and spaghetti with sea urchins, crabs, and chile peppers are two of the memorable dishes here. While prices can be steep, the three-course, $29 business lunch is one of the best deals in the city.
Damian’s Cucina Italiana
A fixture of Houston’s fine-dining scene for over 30 years, Damian’s has helped define the Houston school of Italian–Gulf Coast cooking and established the Mandola family as its ruling dynasty. Rows of tables clad in crisp white tablecloths contrast with the dark wood wainscoting of Damian’s dining room, where Mandola family photos line the walls and waiters in white jackets and black ties pamper the crowd of well-heeled regulars. Chef Napoleon Palacios does lots of old-school favorites such as veal piccata and spaghetti Bolognese, along with locally named inventions such as “snapper Butera” and “asparagus Mike Wells.”
Giuseppe “Frenchie” Camera, born on the island of Capri, likes his Italian food heavy on the seafood. His spaghetti with clams and all of his shrimp dishes are good bets, but the main attraction is the dinner menu’s $27 “Spaghetti Fisherman,” a big bowl filled with spaghetti in red sauce topped with mussels, clams, scallops, fish, and shrimp that will easily feed two. This Seabrook restaurant used to be a hangout for the astronauts who worked at nearby NASA, whose autographed photos hang on the walls. Today, no visit to Frenchie’s is complete without a tour of the space-program memorabilia.
Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino
On the more affordable end of the spectrum, this easy-going Italian cafe concentrates on the classics. Chef-owner Lynette Hawkins turns out the best spaghetti carbonara in town along with a solid tagliatelle Bolognese. Seasonal specials include pappardelle with tiny tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil. For a great light meal, get an Italian salad such as the insalata la mora with greens and grilled chicken sausage or the insalata Naomi with arugula, mushrooms, the Italian air-cured beef called bresaola, and parmesan shavings. The “little dishes” menu, a collection of Italian-style tapas, an affordable list of Italian wines, and a cozy patio make this a favorite place to drink, nibble, and hang out with friends.
Chef John Sheely is upstaging the familiar stars of Houston’s Italian scene with cutting-edge appetizers, spectacular pizza, and stellar house-made pastas at this Post Oak bar and restaurant. On the must-try list: the ethereal cauliflower flan in rich cauliflower cream, the pancetta and guanciale-studded bucatini carbonara, and the crisp but chewy pizza crust on the minimalist wild mushroom pizza. The dining room is dark and intimate, while the chic, sunny bar, which features specials during happy hour, is lively. If you’re wondering about the moniker, an osteria is an Italian country inn with a short menu, and Sheely’s mother’s family name is Mazzantini.
Quattro Restaurant and Vinoteca
Considering that Maurizio Ferrarese moved to Houston from Italy to run the kitchen at Quattro, it’s not surprising that the young chef is turning out top-notch versions of old-school classics like lasagna Bolognese and a risotto Milanese with osso buco. But he’s also stretching our definition of Italian food, with cutting-edge dishes like house-cured veal tongue with watercress and ricotta vinaigrette, and slow-cooked duck with foie gras. Sunday brunch is an experience: the sprawling buffet line features omelets and egg dishes, a seafood station with dishes like striped bass and linguine with shrimp and scallops, entrées like duck and oyster mushrooms and a pan-seared pepper steak, and a carving station.