CultureMap’s list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants shows off the city’s diversity, but many of the establishments show certain comment traits. One of which is a certain affinity for pasta.
That includes Italian restaurants, obviously, but also a number of places that include various pastas as part of their overall offerings. Serving the noodles properly al dente and getting the right ratio of noodles to sauce is mandatory, but the best restaurants add a little Gulf Coast flavor to their dishes. Other establishments differentiate themselves by making their own noodles.
Regardless of the specifics, each of the restaurants on this list will provide a satisfying meal. We encourage people to explore and find their own new favorites.
State of Grace
Thanks to executive chef Bobby Matos, pastas have always been on the menu at Ford Fry’s River Oaks restaurant. While the tagliatelle with wild boar bolognese is a staple, Matos keeps things fresh with seasonal ingredients and different shapes. Current options include agnolotti with elotes-style corn, cotija cheese, and spiced peptias as well as corzetti with clams, pancetta, and Calabrian peppers. No matter what a diner chooses, general manager-sommelier Matt Crawford will have the perfect pairing on his eclectic wine list.
“Nonno’s Pasta,” handmade tagliatelle with a hearty bolognese, has been a staple on Martin Stayer’s menu since day one; some have even hailed it as Houston’s best pasta dish. With a resume that includes stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago, Stayer isn’t a one pasta pony; for proof, consider the braised beef cheek tortellini in caramelized onion brodo he recently added to the menu. Rich and satisfying, the dish will both taste particularly good once the weather cools off and serve as a reminder that Nobie’s always has an intriguing option or two on its eclectic menu menu.
“Cacio e pepe:” a prominent local chef once sent me that three word text message shortly after I sat down to dinner at Coltivare. Turns out he spotted me across the dining room and wanted to encourage me to order the restaurant’s signature black pepper spaghetti; “Already did,” I texted back.
It doesn’t take a super-talented culinary mind to recognize that this simple dish, which gets its signature kick from Tellicherry peppercorns and freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, is among the city’s standout dishes. Beyond that one item, chef-owner Ryan Pera uses seasonal ingredients as well as anyone in Houston, and the restaurant’s other pastas are always intriguing.
Weights + Measures
Chefs Richard Kaplan and Fernando Rios always have about half a dozen pastas on the dinner menu at this elevated neighborhood restaurant in Midtown. The dishes frequently blend Kaplan’s love for charcuterie with Rios’ serious dough skills. For example, confit chicken foie gras truffle tortelloni balances its livery funk with smoky housemade pancetta and creamy labneh. Similarly, gnocchi get some heft from housemade sausage.
Lynette Hawkins’ River Oaks restaurant would have a spot on this list just for its best-in-Houston versions of spaghetti carbonara and tagliatelle bolognese, but those two dishes merely illustrate how carefully-prepared all of her pastas are. Whether made in house or using imported, dried pasta, dishes at Giacomo’s bring together flavorful ingredients in just the right proportions. As always, starting with a couple of vegetable small plates and saving room for dessert will yield their own rewards.
Visiting Astros owner Jim Crane’s fine dining restaurant without trying chef Danny Trace’s Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero — his take on cacio e pepe that’s kicked up with a generous shaving of black truffle — would mean missing a dish that’s both luxurious and delicious. The chef’s other pastas take the Italian philosophy of using just a few ingredients and letting them speak for itself; for example, consider the agnolotti with jumbo lump crab, artichoke, brown butter, and limoncello. If it helps, think of the restaurant as sharing Coltivare’s approach in a more dressed up environment.
Relish Restaurant & Bar
In spirit, proprietor Addie D'Agostino and chef Dustin Teague’s neighborhood restaurant aims to service diners in the same way Houston’s does — with a menu of consistently well-executed classics that can be enjoyed every day. Teague’s pastas help set the restaurant apart. Linguini with Gulf shrimp and blistered remains a staple, but seasonal specials like squid ink spaghetti with creole corn maque choux and Louisiana crawfish tails keep things fresh and interesting.
The menu at Tony’s has always reflected owner Tony Vallone’s Italian heritage, which means pasta plays a central role in any meal there. Whether splurging on a simple dish of tagliarini covered in truffles or opting for a classic like pappardelle with bolognese, the restaurant’s handmade pastas will always be properly seasoned and served al dente. Chef de cuisine Austin Waiter’s influence can be seen in some of the recent additions to the menu, including a dish with Santa Barbara uni, shrimp and bread crumbs.
When it comes to hearty portions at reasonable prices, few inner loop restaurants can match the value diners will get at Paulie’s. Of course, getting a huge bowl of spaghetti and meatballs for $16 would be meaningless if it weren’t also well executed, but the restaurant makes all of its pastas in house, which guarantees they’re as fresh tasting as possible. Highlights include a Buccatini all'Amatriciana that packs a spicy punch courtesy of its chili flakes and Cresto di Gallo that balances out its rich sausage with tart pickled onions.