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Coltivare Pizza & Garden’s pizza with housemade pepperoni, arugula and Parmigiano

Garden Fresh!

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail & Julie Soefer | Houston magazine | April 30, 2014

A ’30s building that long housed a bakery in the Heights is allowing popular chef Ryan Pera to explore the next level of farm-to-table cooking—with his own farm on the grounds and all.

Coltivare Pizza & Garden opened its reclaimed-wood doors in January, the logical extension of Pera’s Revival Market, which zings along blocks away. In addition to being a great way to use and sell the cured meats and other artisanal products made at Revival, Pera and business partner Morgan Weber see Coltivare as a 2,300-square-foot eatery with a 3,000-square-foot garden just beyond the patio. At any time you just might see Pera or one of his chefs racing out to tear some fresh herbs, snip some baby lettuce or plunk a plump carrot out of the dirt.

“I’ve always wanted to have a small neighborhood restaurant where we can really focus on the food and, at the same time, be unpretentious and friendly,” observes Pera, a thoughtful guy, and one who has been that way since his days cooking at *17 Downtown and especially since opening The Grove for Robert del Grande on Discovery Green.

On this mild spring night, the chef’s “neighborhood” feel is in full bloom. Both dining room and patio are packed. GM Jeb Stuart, a veteran of Shade and Zelko Bistro in the Heights, chats about wine and life with old friends—or chats with new friends as though they’re old friends. There’s music playing somewhere, but nobody can hear it beneath the loud and lively conversation.

During the first few months, no-reservations Coltivare (the name is Italian for “to cultivate”) was slammed every night, with two- and three-hour waits for tables inspiring a system of texting to alert wandered-off diners their tables were ready. Sanity has set in now, and the delays are less epic. The place is still busy, though, and often there is a bit of a wait; texts are still sent. But in how many restaurants can you spend your wait time meandering through a garden? In addition, Weber has come up with some innovative cocktails for the new bar, such as a spin on the negroni, to give people something to sip on while wandering.

Weber also did most of the decorating. Most of all, it’s the knotty, weathered, multigrain reclaimed wood that sets the low-key tone. There’s cypress fronting the bar, courtesy of a Louisiana bayou, and shiplap pine along the back wall from homes throughout Houston—and sections of longleaf pine from the pre-Civil War Hawkins Plantation in Brazoria County. Meanwhile, the zinc bar top was resurrected from a now-gone North Carolina restaurant that gave Pera one of his first jobs.

The garden outside has become something of a tourist attraction. Designed in collaboration with Scott Snodgrass of Edible Earth Resources, it looks like a minotaur’s labyrinth of raised wooden beds across the open space and rising along every foot of fence or wall. Everywhere you look, green things are sprouting. (It took Pera and Weber six months to convince the Houston permit gods that a garden made more sense than a parking lot.)

After all the politicking, design and construction, the chef sees Coltivare as a chance to propel his farm-to-table bona fides beyond anything Houston has seen before. The left half of his menu, devoted to various forms of appetizer—Snacks, Salumi, Salads, Small Plates—is a kind of festival of what’s fresh-picked outside and what’s fresh-made at Revival Market. (There’s a run on the salumi every night, especially the popular cured meats like mortadella and finocchiona.)Meanwhile, the salads and snacks showcase vegetables in an atypical way. Where else do you see choices like “Radish, cultured butter, salt,” “Giardiniera pickles” or “backyard lettuces (note it’s plural), herbs, lemon, extra virgin oil.”

Grazing-worthy options range from familiar-sounding-with-a-twist chicken wings with chiles and lemon basil, to more esoteric mussels with capers, garlic and garum, a spice favored by ancient Romans. The pizza list is large and loving, all lifted from Coltivare’s wood-burning oven. There’s traditional margherita (tomato, basil, mozzarella) and pepperoni (Revival makes the best you’ll ever taste), but also combinations you won’t find at Papa John’s even if you go there with Peyton Manning himself. Stinging nettle pizza, anyone? Slow-cooked duck with winter squash? I love the Yukon pizza, as much for its chewy oyster mushrooms and taleggio cheese as for its slices of potato.

My favorite pasta here so far features nothing except spaghetti, lots of black pepper, olive oil and Romano cheese. As the cheese name implies, this is a very old, very down-home dish from Rome. If you want something that seems more from a chef than a grandma, which I usually don’t, there’s also a terrific duck ravioli sharing lemon-parmesan broth with radish and rapini.

Dealing with a seasonal menu like Pera’s, it’s a challenge to say, “Be sure to get the…,” since the dish might have cycled off the menu by the time you get there. But safe bets from the list of only four full-fledged entrees include the whole roasted fish with steamed garlic and wild sorrel, and the Revival pork roast (did I mention that Weber raises his own pigs, though happily not in Coltivare’s backyard?) with clams and sausage over polenta.

Desserts, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend toward the simple and seasonal. My crostata is a crust gathered around fresh strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream on top. If it’s available, next time I’ll have the polenta olive oil cake with citrus, cream and thyme honey. And, yes, I know I’ll be back, even if I have to wander around the garden sipping a cocktail, waiting for a text.

Coltivare Pizza & Garden
3320 White Oak Dr.
713.637.4095

Prices:
Snacks $4-$7, appetizers $7-$19, pizzas and pastas $11-$18, entrees $18-$34, desserts $4-$7

Hours:
Dinner Sun., Mon., Wed., Thu. 5-10pm (closed Tue.) and Fri.-Sat. 5-11pm; lunch Sat.-Sun. 11am-2:30pm

Why Go
Enjoy expressive, next-level, Italian-inspired seed-to-plate cooking and obsession-worthy salumi from celebrated chef Ryan Pera of Revival Market fame. Use your wait for a table to tour the sprawling garden on the grounds.

Farmside Dining
There are plenty of restaurants with patio seating, but not many anywhere with a view of the chef’s own farm/playground. The unique vista is a checkerboard of walls and boxes and trellises, many sprouting things that are green.

Cocktails
Co-owner Morgan Weber has outdone himself in the appropriately Italianate drinks department. Don’t miss his 11th and Hudson—made with amaro, cynar, lemon and angostura butters—or his update of the classic negroni.