Veal is, or was, the signature preparations in Italian-American restaurants in the northeast and Midwest – and about my favorite thing as a kid – like Carbone’s Veal Parmesan that’s famous, infamous, for its $72 price tag. But veal has never really been a big thing in Houston. Sure, it’s been on menus, but it’s not been part of the local Italian-American experience here, unlike in other cities. And, these days diners seem to order it even less. Because of this, the veal often tastes grainy, like it’s been sitting in the restaurant’s freezer for an extended period. I’ve noticed this far too often at Italian-themed places in recent years, which is quite disappointing.
Here are the best Italian-American restaurants in Houston listed by order of preference.
Carrabba’s – These two locations, still owned and operated by co-founder, cookbook author and once PBS cooking show host Johnny Carrabba, are exceedingly popular after three decades years by serving big, flavorful dishes in a casually upscale and festive environment. The original Carrabba’s helped define the exuberant Sicilian-rooted Gulf Coast cooking that is one of the well-loved staples of the Houston dining scene. In vibe, it is the almost perfect Italian-American trattoria, if that is such a thing. There are lively salads, hefty pizzas and pastas and robust easy-to-like dishes like crab cakes with a sweet red pepper sauce, Chicken Bryan, a grilled breast of chicken with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and a lemon-butter sauce, and Stuffed Shrimp Mandola featuring a crab dressing. Not only is the original location on Kirby seemingly always packed with an always well-heeled crowd, the bar is still crowded and lively many nights of the week. Upper Kirby, Briargrove
Worth a Visit
Damian’s – This Midtown stalwart set in a stolid stand-alone building has been a well-worn stop for downtown diners since it opened in the early 1980s. The original slew of owners from those popular local Sicilian-American families – the extremely affable Frankie Mandola, Ciro Lampasses, Joe Butera and namesake Damian Mandola – have long exited but Damian’s carries on is satisfying fashion. It does not nearly excite as it did many years ago when Texas Monthly was lauding it as one of the top dining stops in the state, but it remains a fine-dining Houston favorite. The cooking here might be described as an upscale Gulf Coast version of the country’s beloved Southern Italian-American fare. Flavors and portions are generous. In dining rooms made cozy by low-ceilings and lights, you can enjoy specialties like filet mignon grilled and finished with the piquant herbaceous Sicilian ammoghiu sauce, plump veal chops, Shrimp Damian, and Fra Diavolo Linguine, a medley of seafood including lobster and lump crabmeat in a piquant marinara sauce. Midtown
Rosalie's – Houston has historically been tough on out-of-town restaurateurs and hotel dining, but things might have changed, as West Coast-based television chef Chris Cosentino has channeled his Italian-American roots into what has been a popular and adept smallish spot in a refurbished and now surprisingly hip hotel – the C. Baldwin was a setting for the “The Bachelor” airing in early 2022 – at the southwestern edge of downtown. Chef-created Italian-American might be the best description of the offerings here. The crab cannelloni features Sauce Americane, a French concoction featuring cream and lobster shells. Fairly rich and redolent of the sea, it’s quite tasty if not what any Italian-American family (or restaurant) makes. The menu is enticing with other pastas, spot-on sides such as roasted cherry tomatoes with garlic and breadcrumbs, and protein-centered preparations like a spicy Shrimp Fra Diavolo, a hanger steak Pizzaiolo also with peppers and capers, and a milanese with chicken – there’s no veal on the menu. There are pizzas, too. Though the crusts are not nearly flavorful nor soft enough to pull off a successful margherita, but the other toppings might work well. This cab be a fun stop, and it’s in a hotel! Downtown
Louie’s Italian American – This is a contemporary, fun interpretation of long one of the country’s most popular cuisines studded with insight from present-day Italy. There are plenty of familiar items, done a little differently. Fried calamari, meatballs in red sauce, shrimp cocktail, and an old school antipasto plate but with gruyere, too, are some of the starters. Then the pastas, which are nicely crafted here, thin and light, when either stuffed or not. The Piemontese spindly-stranded tajarin made yellowy similar as there with a surfeit of egg yolks in the dough. Heartier fare includes the ostensibly necessary Chicken Parm, redfish with the piccata treatment. and sausage and peppers. A limited, well-chosen selection of wines and an handful of cocktails that are slated to increase in number help add atmosphere to the quaint setting that manages to be both industrial and homey. And it shares a single-story mixed-use building with a few other complementary businesses including the still somewhat funky wine bar How to Survive on Land and Sea. East End
Lulu’s – Comfortable, especially for those who frequent long-standing Armando’s on the other side of the shopping center at the edge of River Oaks, this attractive spot that opened in mid-2021 serves creditable versions of contemporary takes on Italian-American fare spiked with popular dishes from Italy. Misspellings on the menu – guanchale, al’amatriciana, caccio – helps let you know that this is not serving anything like authentic Italian fare, but the approachable preparations are well-oriented to its target market, as are the portions, not so robust, befitting an older clientele. The wine list, unfortunately, is small and poorly chosen, odd for present-day Houston at its prices. Upper Kirby
Piatto – Tucked away just outside the Loop on West Alabama under the glare of the Williams Tower, this inviting family-run spot has been offering Italian-American favorites geared to the locale – plenty of Gulf shrimp preparations along with grilled meats – plus pizzas for about two decades now. Asparagus topped with lump crab meat and a lemony butter sauce is a popular way to start. Sauces for the pastas are mostly red and white, and a pink, tomato cream. You might want to avoid the gloppy, simple stuffed pastas with the Alfredo sauce, though. Chicken takes precedence over veal for the larger items, but you can still get veal scaloppini in a couple of ways. That the breads for the table are noticeably fresh and flavorful and the salads are robust and well done indicate a welcome level of care taken here. Galleria Area
The osso buco at the original Carrabba's