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Lamb with goat cheese polenta and wilted rapini  

Family Style

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | December 5, 2013

When chef-owner John Sheely of Montrose stalwart Mockingbird Bistro started thinking seriously about creating a new Italian restaurant, the last thing on his mind was spaghetti and meatballs. What he was thinking about was people—his own ancestors, with names like Lorenzo and Ugo, from a town called Empoli in Tuscany, who started arriving at Ellis Island in the 1890s and made their way south to the other immigrant hub of Galveston, where they had friends.

To a remarkable degree, in the new osteria that bears his mother’s maiden name, Sheely has given us an eatery less about the egos of chefs in the kitchen than about the spirits who hover over their shoulders, channeling the old family recipes. As the vintage photos on the walls of Osteria Mazzantini attest, those spirits are the ones really in charge, with Sheely and class-act Exec Chef Paul Lewis as affectionate caretakers.

“As kids, on Sundays, we all sat at this little card table,” Sheely remembers of his own Houston upbringing. “The adults would sit at the big table, get drunk, tell stories and cry. With this place, I’m... paying homage to their lives, to their way of life.”

Sheely’s admirers from Mockingbird and all the way back to the old Riviera Grill are embracing what he’s bringing home from Tuscany and points north. The setting helps. With a bold assist from Jerry Alexander of Acumen Design, Osteria Mazzantini is a gathering of rustic, old-fashioned elements—objects and finishes of brick and wood—that feel contemporary within the new high-rise BBVA Compass Bank Building nonetheless. In some ways, Sheely has recreated his Italian family’s Sunday dinners, hopefully with less crying.

As you enter, there’s a bar on the left. A floor-to-ceiling glassed-in wine wall separates bar from dining room, and it’s mostly filled with rare and novel bottles from every corner of Italy. In the main room, your eyes go immediately upward to a dramatic light-fixture installation in its own recessed space; hanging globes of many colors evoke happy things, like the strings of lights that illuminate streets festivals in Little Italies all over the world.

Osteria’s food is admirable in its traditionalism, and almost without thinking invites often-squeamish locals to order not only Tuscan standards like chicken and duck liver, but also tripe, pork belly, bone marrow and pig jowls. (One dish, a version of ravioli traditionally made with calf brains, was adjusted for a filling of sweetbreads and kale because the original, it was felt, “wouldn’t sell.”)

Constructed around the time-honored three-course Italian meal, not including dessert, the Osteria menu begins with antipasti. The lightest is scallop crudo—basically sashimi in an Italianized vignette of Meyer lemon, pink peppercorns, baby arugula and olive oil. But if you order only one, make it the wild mushroom polenta, with goat cheese, a touch of asiago cheese and balsamic jus. This is family-style cooking from a family most of us never were lucky enough to have.

Pizzas have proven a hit among the primi, from the splendid margherita to the prosciutto and arugula with smoked mozzarella (nice Texas touch) and heirloom tomatoes. My favorite pastas are the chitarra with plenty of different seafoods, saffron and a mild pesto Genovese, and the twirly-chewy garganelli with sweet housemade pork sausage, olive oil, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

As in Italy, secondi (main courses) are straightforward. There is a fine branzino, sometimes served whole, but most often filleted, in a Mediterranean festival of kale, red onions, olives and lemon. And lamb tenderloin highlights one of the best red-meat dishes I’ve ever tasted, tender and medium-rare pieces spiking outward from lush goat cheese polenta and wilted rapini. Excellent contorini, offered for sharing, include roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and almonds.

Italian desserts are likewise simple, often consisting of just an apple. Sheely knows Houston too well for that, so he and Lewis have come up with more decadent alternatives. My favorite is the honey-vanilla panna cotta with balsamic honey sauce and strawberry sorbet, but I also like the tiramisu affagoto, a pleasing deconstruction of the most clichéd Italian confection of all time.

Although Sheely’s taken some liberties with traditional desserts, he has stayed deliciously true to his family-inspired, time-honored concept. This restaurant is a wonderful tribute to the people who inspired him to express love with food in the first place.

Osteria Mazzantini
BBVA Compass Bank Building, 2200 Post Oak Blvd., 713.993.9898
Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm, dinner nightly 5:30-10pm, brunch Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. Bar menu available late every night.

Why Go?
Spinning off from his popular Mockingbird Bistro, chef John Sheely presents another side of his family tree with this comfortable, endlessly satisfying Tuscan osteria.

Free valet at the entrance, plus self-parking in the adjacent garage

Start Here
Try the barbabietole app, roasted beets with fennel, pine nuts, pine nut vinaigrette and a luscious smear of creamy herbed ricotta.

Comfort & Joy
Except for the occasional business meal, dress is casual with a side order of style.

Face the Music
Eschewing the standard Neapolitan soundtrack—and even its Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin next of kin—the sound system delivers a mix of American pop and rock, from Al Green to the Sir Douglas Quintet.

Antipasti $12-$18, primi $16-$24, secondi $24-$39, desserts $7-$9