Restaurants that might be called Italian, I believe, try to mimic how food is prepared in Italy, or in very capable and knowing hands express the ethos of Italy, and made with Italian products when necessary. The chef or proprietor is almost always from Italy or has worked there. They know Italy and aim to serve dishes as Italian as possible, as possible as the customers and budget allow. Italian food varies tremendously by locale and region, maybe more so than other cuisines. Trattoria menus in Siena will look entirely different than one in Palermo or Verona, for example. Here, Italian restaurants rarely try to have a regional or local focus, but will usually have a menu of appealing and somewhat familiar items from around that country.
For me, American-Italian restaurants use contemporary ideas and products from Italy, but the food is, generally, noticeably different than it is in Italy. It is an Americanized Italian take, done in an enticing fashion. These places are often from an experienced chef who puts their spin on Italian dishes, or a notion of Italian dishes, and might use the Italian cooking philosophy as an inspiration. There is always pasta made in house; showing off kitchen skills and providing a canvas for creativity. The quality of ingredients is usually high, and sometimes expensive. Italian descriptions are often used to signify an understanding.
Italian-American cooking is distinct enough for those restaurants to have its own post.
The entrée ranges and averages shown do not include items with the increasingly popular seasonal fresh truffles or caviar service, both of which are seen at all of the pricier of these restaurants, and can add a fair amount to the final tab.
Below are the best dozen Italian restaurants in Houston listed in order of preference.
Alba – Entrées: $25 to $68, $41 average – The successor to Ristorante Cavour in the upscale Hotel Granduca is still led by the estimable Maurizio Ferrarese, and is the best Italian restaurant in Houston. The cooking is rooted in northwestern Italy, if ranging beyond the rich cuisine of its namesake Alba and the Langhe, the land of Barolo and white truffles, though there is agnolotti del plin and with shaved truffle. Ferrarese has the sensibility and creativity of a modern, top chef, but also does a wonderful job with more traditional fresh pasta preparations and no one here is better with risottos, as you might expect of a native of Vercelli, Europe's rice capital, made typically with the aged Acquerello rice. Secondos, meat and seafood, also shine. The setting is comfortable, attractive and usually staid and quiet. Also in the hotel is Giorgio’s, a more casual but quite adept, lightly trafficked option that shares a kitchen and chef with Alba that also shines with a large number of items including a sous vide octopus salad and butternut squash ravioli. Uptown Park
Amalfi – Entrées: $23 to $79, $40 average – Focusing largely on the cuisine of his home region in southern Italy, Salerno native Chef Giancarlo Ferrara produces dishes in this bright strip-center locale that are generally familiar but lighter and more vibrant that what you will typically find here. There are preparations with the house-made strands of scialatelli, tubes of paccheri and another pasta flavored with the colatura, the beguiling fish sauce from the Amalfi coast, among the Campanian coastal specialties. The wood-burning is put into good effect; the whole fish encrusted in rock salt and pizzas are specialties, too, serving some of the city’s best Neapolitan-style pies, which can work very well as a starter or a lunch. Save room for desserts, if possible. The dessert menu is lengthier than most and includes Pasticceria Amalfi, a delectable selection of mini Italian pastries, and a fun, Baked Alaska. Briargrove
Bari – Entrées: $24 to $60, $39 average – Opened in May 2023 with seasoned chef Renato De Pirro, a native of Tuscany, at the helm, this serves delicious pan-Italian cooking that tastes like Italy – likely no other local restaurant imports as much of its product from the home country – in an striking upscale trattoria-like setting with a soaring ceiling and sprawling sidewalk patio space that fits in perfectly with its high-dollar neighbors. The menu features recognizable favorites like Insalata Caprese, fritto misto, pappardelle Bolognese, spaghetti with clams, and veal scaloppine with lemon that are executed with excellent ingredients and more skill, understanding and flair than most places. A seafood tower, East Coast oysters on the half shell, and the now-days necessary caviar and truffle menu items – and tartufo bianco from namesake Alba when in season – can help make this a luxe lunch or dinner. The enticing, Italian-focused wine list has the well-known labels Gaja, Solaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia, but about a dozen nicely chosen ones by the glass for $15 and less and many selections under $75 – like a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino from star producer Casanova di Neri and a Pinot Grigio but from the Collio. Bari is both a restaurant for special occasions and one to be frequented regularly without tiring of it, especially for those who can shop often at the stores outside its doors. River Oaks District
Da Marco – Entrées: $24 to $75, $47 average – Intimately set in a small house with gated parking on Westheimer, Marco Wiles’s Da Marco has long served excellent fare that represents the best of many of the northern Italian regions. Da Marco is much like a very proficient, upscale trattoria whose cooking is not tethered to a particular locale. True to form, here you are expected to dine in the Italian fashion with antipasti, a first course, a meat or fish entrée, and separate sides. The fish on ice that greet you upon entrance is one of Da Marco’s highlights, but it’s all done quite well here and this has been among the best restaurants in the city for years. Along with the food, the wine list is strictly Italian, and pricey, pricier than most. Noticeably attentive service does come with the lofty prices, though. Back in 2006, Gourmet named among the top 50 restaurants (number 29) in the country and the restaurant might be better these days; there’s much more competition. Montrose
Tony’s – Entrées: $26 to $105, $55 average – As its website touts, fairly accurately, “Tony's presents fine dining Italian inspired by Naples, influenced by Milan and Cherished in Houston.” The pan-Italian sensibilities expressed here seek to present the best of Italy, the best of prosperous, gourmet Italy, at that, usually infused with a rich American exuberance. Namesake and legendary local restaurateur Tony Vallone passed away in September 2020, but his widow carries on very well with Kate McLean leading the kitchen for the second time, and Tony's seems more approachable and more Italian than ever. Excellent ingredients have long been the hallmark here, and that includes seasonal, fresh truffles whose aroma can pervade the dining room. Flavorful, thin, freshly made pastas – which nicely all come in first or main course size – tender Provimi veal and impeccable seafood are just some of the attractions, not to mention the excellent service, broad wine selection and gracious, modern setting punctuated with dramatic works by Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles. There’s maybe more attention paid to caviar here than most top restaurants in case you need the tab to reach toward four digits. The wide-ranging wine list is excellent, as its been for decades, with more older vintages and many of bold-faced French names, but also many nice bottles for $75 and under. Greenway Plaza
Potente – Entrées: $39 to $99, $61 average – Serving American-Italian fare with a luxurious bent, this spot across from the ballpark – and sharing an owner with the perennially contending ‘Stros – has a top chef at the helm, Danny Trace formerly at Commander's Palace then the head of hometown Brennan's. It uses approachable preparations inspired from Italy with excellent ingredients to a satiating and robustly flavored, if quite expensive result. The cheapest pasta preparation is $42, for example. Authenticity is not part of the equation nor appeal here, and the preparations reflect a decadent, ingredient-heavy New Orleans heritage. Veal braised in Amarone with locally sourced mushrooms and served with a contrasting white polenta and a beetroot agrodolce, and agnolotti filled with lump crab meat, artichoke, melted leeks, bright beets and limoncello are just a couple. The wine list is lengthy, with plenty of enticements from Italy, France and California for those on expense account, but also nicely selected to appeal to most wine lovers with affordable bottles from excellent producers like Produttori di Barberesco, Pieropan, and Arpepe. Downtown
Ostia – Entrées: $21 to $78, $34 average – Another American-Italian, and fitting in very well in the heart of Montrose. Owner Travis McShane parlays his years with top Manhattan toque, Jonathon Waxman and his well-regarded Barbuto, to serve vibrant, well-executed and very satisfying fare from an edited array of salads, pastas, the famed roasted chicken, and other proteins that evokes a lighter, Californian-Italian tenor. It's also worthy of a visit solely for the pizzas, even one with kale, and just at lunch. Each version feature a properly enjoyable, fairly flavorful soft crust with ingredients that are noticeably higher quality and so tastier than usual. The setting is handsome, casual and inviting with an open kitchen and a pleasant patio. Montrose
Rosie Canonball – Entrées: $18 to $60, $31 average – Italian preparations including well-done fresh pastas and pizzas plus a few dishes ranging to other southern European spots. The second of several concepts, three currently serving food, to open in a very smart, quaint complex – acclaimed March is housed just above – this is essentially an Italian restaurant with a more than a few complementary nods to the Iberian peninsula on the short menu. There are some very well-crafted, if possibly too precious, fresh pasta preparations in the Emilian tradition, excellent pizzas, plus breads and greens and other vegetables, and a quartet of proteins including the requisite steak and seafood items. These crowd-pleasing dishes and stylish space have made it an attractive stop for lunch, business or otherwise, and a busy spot at night. The wine list is expansive and mainly Old World and fun for almost any wine lover. Montrose
Giacomo’s – Entrées: $15 to $35, $23 average – Lynette Hawkin’s comfortable, friendly spot near River Oaks has been easy to love since it opened in 2009. Affordably priced and featuring a big menu that includes plenty of well-rendered small plates of trattoria-style Italian dishes that often highlight Rome and Tuscany, including items like crostini with chicken livers and fine quality freshly made pastas – the best might be the tortelli di bietola, medium-sized ravioli filled with Swiss chard and soft goat cheese and topped with a sage leaves and melted butter – which are paired with a nicely assembled and extremely enticing 150-bottle or so mostly Italian wine list that has many tempting choices between $25 and $40 in a setting that is comfortable and coolly retro. Casual, welcoming, proficient and well-suited for Houston, this is a tough restaurant not to like. River Oaks
Poscol – Small plates: $7 to $20 – The restaurant takes its name from the name in dialect of the main thoroughfare in Udine (Via Poscolle), Wiles’ hometown in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli, can work as an all-Italian wine bar supported with enticing small plate preparations, many meant to be shared. The food has a strong northeastern Italian influence along with impeccably Italian sensibilities that have worked extremely well for Houston diners at Da Marco, not far down Westheimer. The roughly 50-item menu will be comprised of regional Italian specialties. There are risotto dishes, fresh pasta preparations, bruschette, salumi, fried items, a well-chosen selection of Italian cheeses, and seafood including shrimp and prosciutto with garlic and capers and octopus and cannellini beans. Its longtime Sunday special of porchetta, a roasted pork preparation, has even thrilled a former resident of Umbria, where the dish was born. Though a sibling of the dearly departed Dolce Vita that was a few addresses down, the pizzas here show that they miss that proper oven. Montrose
Davanti – Entrées: $18 to $31, $24 average – Building on the success of the counter-service Fresco on the Southwest Freeway, and the considerable publicity from an appearance on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2021, Fresco was essentially replicated as Davanti this summer, in nicer digs. Higher prices, too, but this is still casual Italian done well from the kitchen of Chef Roberto Crescini who hails from near Brescia in northern Italy and cooked professionally for years in Italy before coming to Houston. The main attractions are freshly crafted pastas made with at least a substantial portion of hard wheat flour for a toothsome texture, and the ability to be shaped. And shapes there are. If one of the tasty listed options don’t interest, in user-friendly American fashion, you can choose a shape from among a wide array: bucatini, linguine, fettuccine, pappardelle, spaghetti, conchiglie, small or large rigatoni, tagliolini, fusilli, tagliatelle, casarecce, cavatappi, and gluten-free penne; then top it with one of eight sauces, and even add a choice from a few proteins to that. A ravioli preparation, pasta with the braised lamb sauce or with an all-beef ragù bolognese – this is Texas, after all – and the thick Roman-style pizza al taglio are the highlights from an enticing menu. Also, Crescini is a certified Norcino, butcher, so be on the look out for any salumi specials. Greenway Plaza
Perbacco – Entrées: $18 to $30, $22 average – Lower-key, featuring very approachable, familiar Southern Italian cooking geared toward local sensibilities from a longtime restaurateur from Capri, off the coast of Naples, the fare is largely lighter and better prepared than similar dishes elsewhere. It’s set in pleasantly utilitarian fashion in the ground floor of an office building, albeit Philip Johnson and team’s landmark Pennzoil Plaza, the emphasis is on enjoyable eating rather than fine dining. Maybe not a destination restaurant, but it works admirably as a downtown lunch spot and stop pre-symphony or -theater at the end of the week There are several, somewhat hearty, baked pasta dishes such as lasagna and cannelloni, and a dozen other pasta preparations like Penne della Casa with perfectly sautéed Gulf shrimp in garlic, brandy pink sauce, and house-made potato gnocchi with eggplant in a tomato sauce. Its version of the traditional, simple linguine and clams is one of the best around. There are a fair number of protein-centric entries, too – veal Marsala, and Gulf snapper sautéed in white wine, onion, fresh tomatoes, capers and basil, aptly carrying the Snapper Napoli name. Even tripletail was a recent lunchtime fish special. Entrées are served with a small salad, helping to make this an especially nice value. Downtown
Fresh pasta with fresh truffles at Bari