While it isn't the most heralded type of cuisine in Houston, Italian certainly has its place. Every neighborhood seems to have at least one red-sauce spot perfect for those Friday nights over a cheap bottle of wine, and if you want a romantic evening with impeccable service and homemade pasta that'll make your eyes roll back ... we've got that, too.
(Seriously, have you even tried the pappardelle at Giacomo's?)
Below is a selection of our favorite spots for—among other pleasures—cacio e pepe, pepperoni pizza, and antipasti.
Step inside the old barn off of Ella Boulevard in Lazybrook/Timbergrove, and be ready to enjoy a salad. Yes, the Caesar at Cavatore, prepared tableside with homemade dressing, is a hit. Otherwise, you're here for red-sauce delights like spaghetti marinara and the veal-and-cheese-stuffed cannelloni della casa, perfect for splitting inside the cozy, wood-walled dining room with tables draped in red-checkerboard tablecloth.
Morgan Weber and chef Ryan Pera’s handsome Heights eatery is perfect for both dates and groups. 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 cauliflower with pine nuts and raisins; toast with local crab, squash scapece, and balsamic; and snapper collars with limoncello, chayote, and herbs. Don’t miss the pizzas (chicken and prosciutto, especially), seafood pastas (fettuccine with Gulf shrimp), or desserts (roasted Texas peach crostata with cream).
Peer into the “dough room” to watch as pastas and pizzas are made by hand at this lively Italian spot. Standouts include the octopus carpaccio, the Houston Dairymaids cheese board, the chicken Parmesan, the pepperoni and goat cheese pie, and, especially, the divine, lightly creamy spaghetti carbonara with salumi Toscano and an egg that’s broken tableside by your server.
Owner/chef Lynette Hawkins has succeeded in keeping her cozy Italian café both casual and high-quality since opening in 2009. Her small plates and accompanying small prices encourage you to order, experiment, and share (don’t miss the eggplant involtini), though the restaurant is perhaps best known for its exemplary spaghetti carbonara with guanciale and a farm-fresh egg. (Also, the gorgonzola and mushroom pappardelle is to die for.) A progressive bottle list features plenty of biodynamic selections and spotlights Italy’s myriad female winemakers.
The splashy dining room in this Italian stronghold, the undisputed power-lunch palace of River Oaks, hosts Houston’s social set during the day. The generous $19 prix fixe business lunch offers two reliable courses of standards, such as Caesar salad and pork chop with potato puree. For dinner, favorites like frutti di mare and short rib agnolotti aim to please. For bigger appetites, the wild boar chop (called Gallagher) in aged sherry-morel sauce makes a hefty statement.
Steak is the main event at new Italian chophouse Marmo, but the pasta on the menu is also worth writing home about. The Montrose Collective-located restaurant, which opened back in April, is the sister concept to Baltimore’s Tagliata and is owned by Atlas Restaurant Group, the Baltimore-based hospitality behemoth behind Loch Bar and Ouzo Bay in River Oaks District. Standouts on the menu include, of course, the myriad cuts of steak. For pasta, try the lobster ravioli with mascarpone, lemon, and lobster cream sauce if you’re looking for a real treat.
Positioning itself as a sexier upscale-casual Italian restaurant, this chain (formerly of Arizona's Fox Restaurant Concepts) offers shareable plates like prosciutto bruschetta and black Mediterranean mussels, plus pizzas (we recommend the Pig, with spicy pepperoni, soppressata, and sausage) and homemade pasta dishes. Try to snag a seat facing the glass-walled kitchen, where cooks scurry about making delicate pastas like tortelloni and radiatori, that half-spiral that sops up Parmesan cream sauce in a mouthwatering dish with short rib.
On the patio at Travis McShane's return to Houston is where I want to be. Give me a glass of sangiovese, and order me the pork chop Milanese, a hefty and tender cut meant for a couple of party guests. I'll be happy all evening with that alone. Of course, there's also the half chicken, perfectly browned with a lemony tweak. That dish is a nod to McShane's mentor Jonathan Waxman, who created the definitive version of half chicken at New York's Barbuto. Ostia feels a lot like a New York restaurant with some Cali effortlessness ... or exactly the kind of place that would open in Texas in 2020.
One of Montrose's most adored spots for comfort food, Paulie's is still going strong with homemade pasta dishes focused on unique varieties, like the frilly, U-shaped creste di gallo—tossed with sausage, chile flakes, and pickled onions in marinara—and tiny, chubby, earlike canestri, served with crimini and shiitake mushrooms and a creamy marsala sauce with garlic and sage. Paulie's also crafts one of the finer Italian hoagies in Houston, using Genoa salami and ham with provolone in oil and vinegar. Don't sleep on the surprising shrimp BLT, either. Of course, some shortbread cookies make a Paulie's meal complete.
The Neapolitan pies at Pizaro's are solid, but, without a doubt, the order to make here is from the Detroit-style menu. Rectangular and workmanlike Detroit-style pie emphasizes a crispy crust and an ultra-rich topping of brick cheese, and Pizaro's nails it. The Motown (little pepperoni cups, plus more pepperoni under the cheese) is a classic, but don't pass up the Vesuvius with ghost-pepper sausage and spicy soppressata.
Astros owner Jim Crane envisioned a chic space for pre- and postgame dining when he opened this place across from Minute Maid Park downtown, but it’s so much more than that. Come here to experience la dolce vita, complete with an opulent, gilded atmosphere, refined wine service, and cuisine from longtime Brennan’s chef Danny Trace. Must-orders include the foie gras padella, caviar service, and house-made spaghetti al tartufo nero (with black truffle), naturally shaved tableside.
In 2019, owner Shanon Scott rebranded the eatery Sud Italia, which opened at the corner of Morningside and University in 2015 with cuisine of southern Italy, as Roma Ristorante, which now focuses on covering multiple regions of food from Italy. Chef Kevin Bryant focuses on classic and modern Italian cuisine, bringing in traditional pastas and recipes unique to each region, while incorporating proteins of land and sea.
Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino’s Rosalie Italian Soul, named after his great-grandmother Rosalie, is the chef’s most personal endeavor to date. The old-school Italian restaurant, located inside downtown Houston’s C. Baldwin Hotel, serves up soulful Italian American comfort food with an upscale twist. Standouts on the menu include the rigatoni with Texas wild boar ragù and the crispy calamari featuring pickled peppers and Palermo aioli. And you absolutely cannot visit Rosalie without ordering a pizza. Our favorite is the wild mushroom pizza, which comes with fresh mozzarella and plenty of pecorino. Need we say more?
Opened by the folks behind EaDo staple Nacy’s Hustle, Tiny Champions is a pizzeria that is small in name but big in charm and delectability. The relaxed hipster haunt, also located in EaDo, serves up pasta dishes and pizzas in an eclectic space that sports a bohemian vibe. For pasta, you can’t go wrong with the linguine with marcona almonds, tomato, feta, chili, and mint. For pizza, go with the pineapple pizza featuring smoked ham, jalapeño, tomato, and mozzarella—the truth is, it’s only a travesty to put pineapple on pizza if you put too little pineapple on the pizza, and that’s not the case with this juicy pie. Tiny Champions also features an extensive dessert lineup that includes retro classics like a roasted strawberry sundae with whipped cream and fennel sprinkles, ricotta cheesecake hand pies, and ice cream by the scoop.
Tony's creative tasting menu, which changes often, wows with the type of dishes that should make the Michelin Guide take notice: a duck press for two, pan-seared Dover sole with meunière sauce, and that famous gigantic soufflé. Add in any of the house-made pastas and the always-impeccable service at this Greenway Plaza favorite, and there’s reason to believe that Tony’s is still at the top of its game after more than 50 years in business.
Trattoria Sofia is a new Berg Hospitality Group concept in the Heights that serves rustic Italian fare in a setting so convincingly Italian that you’ll want to serenade your bowl of cacio e pepe with a spontaneous “Nessun Dorma” by the end of your meal—including the high B at the end, since it’s always nice to end dinner on a good note. The upscale restaurant, open since February, serves up decadent dishes like veal Milanese with castelfranco salad, clarified butter, and lemon; a campanelle lamb ragù with tomato, sage, rosemary, and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and one of the best prosciutto pizzas you can find in the city. Come for the food; stay for the romantic, old-world atmosphere.