Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt asked his 5.4 million Twitter followers a simple question on July 5: "What's the best Italian restaurant in Houston?"
What’s the best Italian restaurant in Houston?— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) July 5, 2018
As one would expect, the results were predictably bad. The overwhelming majority endorsed of the tweets suggested Olive Garden (hopefully, ironically), but at least a few folks managed to give shout outs to staples like Paulie’s and Mandola’s Deli.
Until Watt’s favorite chef Ronnie Killen opens an Italian concept — all those pizza pics Killen keeps posting to Instagram have to mean something, right? — let us offer the leading candidate for the NFL’s 2018 Comeback Player of the Year (unless he ties with Deshaun Watson, obviously) a few suggestions. As with most restaurant questions in a city with as many compelling options as Houston, no one place is the best; different restaurants suit different cravings. This list isn't designed to be comprehensive, but they're all 100-percent guaranteed to be better than some national chain — even if they don't come with unlimited breadsticks.
For Italian food with a Texas accent: Coltivare
Chef Ryan Pera’s Heights eatery has earned just about every local award, including the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Restaurant of the Year in 2017. Signature dishes like the pepperoni pizza (made with an unusual sourdough crust) and the black pepper spaghetti mix with seasonal items that includes salads made with items pulled straight from the restaurant’s garden. Top notch cocktails and an innovative wine list pair well with the cuisine.
Yes, the wait at peak times can be notoriously long, but Watt is enough of a celebrity that the staff might be able to give him the Goodfellas treatment and make a table appear out of thin air. For less high profile diners, going early or late or on less busy nights like Monday and Wednesday will garner a table more quickly. 3320 White Oak Dr.; 713–637–4095
For Italian food made by an Italian chef: Sud Italia Ristorante
Shanon Scott’s Rice Village restaurant has always been charming, but it received a serious culinary upgrade when Maurizio Ferrarese made Sud Italia his new home. Ferrarese’s talents made Quattro at downtown’s Four Seasons hotel compelling, and his work at Sud Italia brings those same fine dining standards to a more approachable price point. The menu that now includes a range of new starters (try the arancini), delicate housemade pastas, and vibrantly-flavored seafood dishes. 2347 University Blvd.; 713-664-7571
For Houston’s best pasta dishes: Giacomo’s cibo e vino
Giacomo’s chef-owner Lynette Hawkins may not spring for high-priced PR to shout about her restaurant’s virtues, but she doesn’t need to. Her River Oaks area restaurant draws consistent crowds for impeccable versions of classic dishes like spaghetti alla carbonara and tagliatelle alla bolognese, as well as the seemingly endless array of hot and cold vegetable dishes. Monthly specials, friendly service, and an all-Italian wine list help elevate Giacomo’s from neighborhood gem to the sort of establishment that would compel multiple visits from a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 3215 Westheimer Rd.; 713-522-1934
When price is no object: Da Marco
At a time when dining has become more casual, very few Houston restaurants maintain the standards of style and service that obligate a man to dine in a sport coat, but this Montrose institution is one of them. Owner Marco Wiles maintains those high standards by delivering consistently well-executed dishes that feature fresh ingredients imported from Italy. Paying $52 for spaghetti with sea urchin, crab, and chilies or $55 per pound for a whole branzino will certainly sting anyone’s wallet — maybe less if the person happens to be in the middle of a six-year, $100 million contract — but the consistently solid execution and bright flavors are guaranteed to satisfy. 1520 Westheimer Rd.; 713-807-8857
For classic Italian-American cuisine: Carmelo’s Cucina Italiana
Sometimes “Italian food” means dishes like chicken parmesan and fettuccine alfredo; after all, just because they’ve never been served in Italy doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious. For those Italian American classics, head to west Houston, where B&B Butchers owner Ben Berg and his brother, chef Daniel Berg, have injected a little New York swagger into the almost 40-year-old institution. Yes, the meatballs follow the recipe created by founder Carmelo Mauro, but other dishes like linguine alla vongole have never been better. The addition of a little support from B&B in the form of dry-aged steaks and a new wine list by sommelier Lexey Johnson don’t hurt either. 14795 Memorial Dr.; 281-531-0696