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 antipasta.
Step inside the old barn off Ella Boulevard in Lazybrook/Timbergrove, and be ready to enjoy a salad. Yes, the Caesar at Cavatore, prepared table-side 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 dressed with 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, and crackers, with smoked trout dip and pickled mustard seeds. Don’t miss the pizzas (chicken and prosciutto, especially), seafood pastas (fettuccine with Gulf shrimp), or fish dishes (striped bass with sunchokes).
Peer into the “dough room” to watch as pastas and pizzas are made by hand at this lively Italian spot. Standouts include the beef 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 table-side 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, that 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.
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 types, like the frilly, U-shaped creste di gallo—tossed with sausage, chili flakes, and pickled onions in marinara—and tiny, chubby, and ear-like 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 forget the Vesuvius with ghost-pepper sausage and spicy soppressata.
Astros owner Jim Crane envisioned a chic space for pre-and-post-game 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 lobster saffron bisque, caviar service, and house-made spaghetti al tartufo nero with black truffle—but of course—shaved table-side.
Last January owner Shannon Scott rebranded the fine-dining eatery Sud Italia, which opened at the corner of Morningside and University in 2015, as Roma, a less expensive, more casual spot. Chef Angelo Cuppone focuses on classic and modern Roman cuisine, while sprinkling in a few tried-and-true Italian favorites. The bolognese is good, but our favorite item on the pasta menu is the tender gnocchi served with shrimp in a smoky, velvety saffron sauce.
Chef de cuisine Austin Waiter’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.