Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber opened Coltivare, an Italian restaurant in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in January of this year. Three years ago, they founded an artisan meat market and café named Revival Market, which sold, among other things, cuts of meat and bacon from pigs raised at Weber’s farm in Yoakum. We talked with them by phone in late February.
Patricia Sharpe: I understand you’ve been doing demonstration hog butcherings at Revival Market.
Ryan Pera, executive chef at Coltivare: We do hog butchering every few months. They are pretty fun. We try to limit it to around 24 participants. I’d say we’ve done around ten now. The response has been incredible. We get a lot of good questions.
PS: Why did you go with Italian cuisine at Coltivare rather than a Texas or regional menu?
RP: I love Italian food and have an Italian heritage. But I think people in general love Italian. Pizza and pasta are something that people crave multiple times a week. I know I do. I would eat pizza 7 days a week—I can now, which is dangerous. [Laughs.]
PS: Are you trying to supply a lot of the menu from your own ranch and garden?
RP: We do what we can, but there is no way. Take something as simple as onions—I would need an onion farm. Maybe one day. On the other hand, every animal that is slaughtered on Morgan’s farm is brought in and used to its fullest, and every piece of lettuce that we pick from the garden outside gets used. We hope to grow things that we can highlight, like heirloom varietals, and focus dishes around them.
PS: Tell me about that oven in the corner of the kitchen. It’s used for more than pizzas, right?
RP: It’s called a Josper. It is Spanish-designed but produced here. It uses only charcoal, the same type of equipment that steakhouses use in their high-temperature broilers. I am a firm believer in wood; I don’t like the flavor of gas in a grill. You can close the box and it can get up to 700 or close to1000 degrees. It gives a nice smoky wood flavor on the meats and doesn’t lose the juices. The heat source is on the bottom but when we close it, it can create its own convection inside. We cook a lot of meats in it.
PS: Where are the pizzas cooked?
RP: In the hearth oven. It’s an Italian style domed hearth oven.
PS: Your pizza dough is the same as the focaccia, right? It’s fantastic, by the way.
RP: I feel like I worked on our pizza dough for a good year, with our chef de cuisine, when we were planning and I was doing a good deal of baking at home. We wanted to get the long fermentation and create a high flavor and a crispy exterior but with a very light texture on the inside.
PS: Has anybody griped that it’s not technically pizza dough?
RP: I think it’s a great product whether it’s what somebody is expecting. As long as we can maintain quality, we’ll avoid those arguments. Also, there are enough styles of pizza, whether it’s New York or Chicago or Neapolitan, that people can accept variety and differences.
PS: Your n’duja [a type of soft, spreadable salami that they make in-house] reminded me of pimiento cheese! It’s bright red-orange and very smooth.
RP: Believe me, there is no cheese in it. Its’ a fermented product [as all Italian salami is]. We ferment it quickly at almost a poaching temperature. And we add a Texas chile called a Harlingen chile. The n’duja is smooth because of the amount of chiles that we use and the pork fat. That fat is from the animals raised on Morgan’s farm, and it is not like any other pork fat that we’ve ever found. It’s firmer and much more luscious on the tongue.
PS: There was a word—“garum”—that I’ve not seen on a Texas menu before. It’s in the broth used with the mussels.
RP: Right. It’s a fermented fish sauce that dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. I learned about it when I was an anthropology major in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I actually did my thesis for that class on Apicius [which is a collection of Roman recipes and kitchen instruction compiled in the late fourth or early fifth century AD]. To make money, I was cooking at an Italian restaurant at the same time. I was fascinated with garum, and I finally did try it in Italy a couple of years later. I have always wanted to bring it to a restaurant setting, and now I can. You can get garum on the internet!
PS: So, Morgan, you did the decor and design?
Morgan Weber: Yes. We went with old materials because we didn’t want to feel like a new restaurant. We wanted it to feel used and comfortable. I’m always popping into antique shores and getting on eBay looking for things.
PS: Tell me about the tables. They look well-worn.
MW: The wood on the tables came from an antebellum sugar plantation in Brazoria County. We found it about four years ago. I was told that a lieutenant in the Civil War set up shop there and the wood we used in the tables came from the floor in his office. It was lovingly taken apart. That is the oldest wood in there.
PS: What else?
MW: The windows that are now mirrors on the east wall of the restaurant are also from the 1860s and 1870s and came out of an old warehouse in Boston, I believe. The wood on the walls came from a house on Houston Avenue here in the city that was torn down, and all of the shiplap that we used to build the banquettes came from houses here in the Heights that were demolished.
PS: The bar front looks like it’s been chewed on, or burrowed into.
MW: It’s pecky cypress, a wood that used to be found in swamps in East Texas and Louisiana, until it was logged out. The texture looks like it has wormholes, but it’s [caused by a fungus]. We had just enough to do the front of the drink bar and front of the kitchen bar; it’s about 130 years old.
PS: There’s something in the restrooms that has a link to your past?
MW: I grew up in Yoakum, where there was a little Mexican food restaurant. You had to go through the kitchen and an alley to get to the restrooms, where they had a powdered soap dispenser. I was in an antique store last year and saw an old porcelain one that probably came out of a school bathroom, so I started hunting them down. The one in our restroom has become conversation piece.
PS: So you’re doing American cocktails in an Italian restaurant?
MW: Italy doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture. Yes, there are Italian cocktails like negronis and bellinis, but it has much more depth in its spirits products. The booze they produce lends itself nicely to our American cocktails.
PS: What’s the style here?
MW: I like simple ones that build on classic drinks. I’m not an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cocktail guy. I feel like in the last five or six years people threw the rules out and started making up their own drinks and mixing whatever they wanted to. You saw farmers’ market cocktails coming in with crazy ingredients. And then people were even making their own gins.
I feel that a company like Lillet has been around for, oh, 150 years and they are incredibly good at making Lillet [a French aperitif]. I leave the booze making to the experts. We have our take on cocktails like the French 75, on the manhattan, on a crusta. We are trying to use what’s around us but give it an Italian mindset.