You must get the spaghetti with olive oil,” said my friends Chris and Tamara when I ran into them while waiting to be seated at Coltivare. “We must get the focaccia,” insisted Marie, one of my dining companions, as we settled in at a table. “We must get the pizza,” said my other friend, Carl, unfolding his napkin. Coltivare, from the folks at Revival Market, which is located a few blocks away, had been open only a month, but it seemed as if everybody in Houston already had a strong opinion about what to try. By the time our waiter arrived, I had almost no decisions to make. And that was a good thing, because left to my own devices, I might not have ordered a round of focaccia, and therefore I would have missed out on one of the year’s most compelling carbohydrates. Stacked like kindling, the thick slices of Italy’s canonical bread were a miracle of springy texture and crunchy crust, luxuriantly brushed with Spanish olive oil and flecked with rosemary and sea salt. Our plateful disappeared like it was on fast-forward.
Similarly, if I had been the only one in charge, I might not have expended so many calories on the ’nduja. Quite the darling of the cured meat–obsessed food world, ’nduja (pronounced en-doo-ya) is a spicy, soft sausage. Harlingen chiles give this particular version a deep reddish tint, and the delectable fat that makes it easily spreadable is supplied by Revival’s own heritage pigs, raised in nearby Yoakum.
Happily polishing off a slice of focaccia slathered with ’nduja, I surveyed the room, which was already full at a quarter till six. Some serious charisma is in play at this little storefront in the Heights, a lovable older neighborhood that might be thought of as Houston’s real-life Brigadoon. Part of the restaurant’s allure is that the affable business partners—executive chef Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber, farmer and jack-of-all-trades—have been entrenched in the local scene ever since they started Revival three years ago. Some of the intrigue comes from the anticipation that built up during its eighteen-month build-out. But most of the charm is on the plate: everything at Coltivare reflects our decade’s dominant culinary ethos. The owners use ingredients from local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen; they serve roasts and charcuterie from their own porkers; and they grow their own greens behind the restaurant (a stroll through the beds of adorable baby lettuces will lower your blood pressure twenty points).
It also doesn’t hurt that Coltivare looks the part, outfitted with farmhouse totems like dish-towel napkins and glass jars filled with cutlery. And even though the dining room is new, it passes for a time-worn, classic place. Weber spearheaded the design, and he has a story behind every scrap of lumber. The wood for the tabletops was salvaged from an antebellum sugar plantation in Brazoria County; the bar front is pleasantly scruffy, made of pecky cypress from East Texas and Louisiana. “We may be new,” he says, “but we don’t want to feel new.” Mission accomplished, I’d say.
If the initial impression of the restaurant underscores a Texas farm-and-ranch aesthetic, its kitchen is fully Italian. The choice seems a little surprising until you chat with Pera. “That’s my family heritage,” he says. “I would be happy to eat pizza seven days a week.” Then he adds with a laugh, “And now that I can, it could be dangerous.” That rustic spirit pervades the entire menu. “It’s easy to be casual and unpretentious with Italian food,” he explains. “We did not want a restaurant that was fancy in any way, shape, or form, so Italian was perfect.”
With that in mind, we ordered a pizza from the wood-fired domed oven glowing away in a corner of the kitchen. The toppings of sliced Meyer lemon, rosemary, luscious scoops of Pure Luck goat cheese, and both black and green cerignola olives lent a sharp, spare flavor profile that we thoroughly enjoyed. Next, we tried another “must”—spaghetti in olive oil with black pepper and drifts of Parmesan. How so few elemental ingredients could add up to so much flavor is beyond me. It defined Italian soul.
Leaving Marie and Carl to finish it off, I walked over to see how Chris and Tamara were doing. Generously, they offered me their last mussel, which came in an interesting funky-flavorful broth made with capers, garlic, and garum, the last ingredient a potent fish sauce that dates at least to Roman times (and that Pera admits has become a bit of an obsession for him).
Wiping my fingers, I got back to our table just in time for the arrival of our roast pork loin on polenta. My companions leaned in to watch as I sliced it, and I heard them murmur, almost in unison, “Um, it doesn’t look quite done.” In fact the center was barely medium-rare, not to mention semi-tough. Another twenty or so minutes in the Josper, the kitchen’s unusual combination charcoal broiler and oven, would have fixed it, but we were slowing down, so we just nibbled the tasty done part and enjoyed the good clams and house-made pork sausage that came as a topping.
Having run out the clock on that evening, I decided to give Coltivare a second whirl the next day. This time, my friend Susan and I showed up at five o’clock on the dot to try the wood-roasted whole vermillion snapper, a beautifully cooked Gulf fish that had been rubbed with at least half the herbs in the garden. To round it out, we got the ricotta gnocchi, deeply seared and tossed with great shards of Parmesan and a dash of balsamic.
Coltivare’s dessert menu is so tightly edited it consists of only three categories: pie, cookies, and cake. Our favorite was the homey polenta cake. It had a nice grit to its texture and a near-savory flavor that was well balanced by a lazy drizzle of intense thyme-infused honey.
Not long after my visits, Coltivare got its liquor license, and now in addition to wine and beer, a thoughtful cocktail list extends the kitchen’s Italian heritage to the bar. “Italy’s real strength is the liquor it produces—like aperitifs and digestifs and spirits—rather than the drinks it has invented,” says Weber. “But the liquor they make lends itself nicely to our American cocktails. I think of them as simple, classic, handcrafted American drinks made with Italian booze.” It’s the flip side of the kitchen’s approach, using American ingredients in Italian dishes. At the bar, they’re making American drinks with Italian ingredients. But somehow, in the crazy, mixed-up world of postmillennial dining, it works. A third visit is on the agenda, because now I must try one of those cocktails.