I’ve read a lot of backgrounders on chefs over the years. The majority of these documents are festooned with blue-ribbon credentials and littered with the names of swanky dining establishments. Well-known Houston chef John Sheely’s, by contrast, candidly states that he started out as a ski bum in his twenties working for restaurants to support a serious slope habit. I like that. It seems all-American. Horatio Alger–esque. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a degree from one of this country’s finer culinary academies. If somebody or their mama and daddy have a spare $25K to $100K lying around, that’s fantastic. But it’s refreshing that a well-regarded chef in a major city started at the bottom of the ladder and worked his way up.
The reason we’re hearing such a quirky, long-forgotten fact about Sheely right now is that three months ago, the 54-year-old proprietor of the highly successful Mockingbird Bistro in Houston’s posh River Oaks neighborhood opened his first new restaurant in eleven years. Eleven years! That’s an eon considering how fast some young turks roll out their careers. He wasn’t obligated to open any additional restaurants, of course. The care and feeding of the well-heeled regulars who flock to cozy Mockingbird is enough to keep anybody busy. But some things, like family history, will not be denied, and it turns out that John Sheely is Italian on his mother’s side. Long story short, a first-floor space in a glossy new Galleria-area bank building is now occupied by Osteria Mazzantini.
Given the noise level at hot new restaurants, I knew my friends and I would be shouting the entire time if we didn’t arrive unfashionably early. So we agreed on seven o’clock—and then wished we’d come sooner. Despite carpeting and other commendable efforts to dampen the sound, in less than an hour it was like trying to talk over a jet engine. But I was glad to have allowed a few minutes to get lost, since the place is set well off the street and is hard to spot (look for the cluster of orange umbrellas out front). And at least we didn’t have to wait; when we walked in, the cavernous dining room was still empty, and servers, each more eager than the next, pounced on us en masse.
Looking around, I could understand why sound was bouncing all over the place. A stretch of plate glass across the front, a bar lined with bricks, and high ceilings all multiply the effect of eighty people chattering at once. I peered longingly out at the terrace, which was outfitted with heat lamps and looked like it would be comfy no matter what the weather. The dining room is what I’d call handsome in a corporate way, with beige walls and dark furniture relieved by colorful blown-glass light fixtures (the only touches that seem even vaguely Italian). The setting is ideal for a business lunch, and area condo dwellers and hotel guests are finding their way there too.
After poring over the antipasti menu, our table of four fell into a spirited debate because it all sounded good. Eventually we ended up with a crazy quilt of starters, our favorite being the fegatini toscano, a glass bowl filled with smooth chicken-and-duck-liver mousse; it was accented with a bracing fennel and citrus jam and topped with a dark, sweet balsamic jelly. Equally impressive was a big bowl brimful of PEI mussels, a classic presentation in a tomato-and-garlic-zapped white wine broth. If our third appetizer, thin-sliced scallop crudo, had been about a day fresher, I would have been happy, because the treatment—ground pink peppercorns and Meyer lemon zest—was a great contrast to the shellfish’s natural sweetness. We’d heard good things about the roasted beets, but the recipe had apparently changed, because they proved to be unremarkable cubes on overdressed baby arugula. Our final choice was a wonder, though: perfectly roasted brussels sprouts laced with chunks of addictively salty pancetta and slivered almonds. Gazing about, we spotted plates identical to ours on tables all over the room. The word was obviously out.
So often these days, a restaurant comes on strong with the appetizers and then loses its way with the entrées. Mazzantini almost fell into that trap. Actually, it was one of the pastas, clunky, doughy homemade cappelletti in a thick tomato brodo, that was the low point of the meal. Well, the skate special—overcooked and falling apart in a saffron broth—was a downer too. But then things got back on track. Lamb tenderloin, lovely medium-rare slices with goat-cheese polenta, reassured us, as did both the USDA Prime strip loin steak with splendid sweet-tart cipolline alongside and a compulsively edible veal shank, accented with gremolata and accompanied by a brilliant Parmesan risotto. The dessert menu struck similar notes of tradition and innovation—and had similar ups and downs. A bland, heavy olive oil–orange cake languished half eaten, while a bright limoncello tart—a salty-sweet shortbread crust with Meyer lemon curd on top and a berry coulis smeared on the side—vanished in seconds.
Mazzantini may have been more than a decade in the making, but it is not Sheely’s first Italian restaurant. “I had an Italian place in Vail when I was living there in the early nineties,” he says, adding, “I ran it for three years and then came to Houston and opened Riviera Grill and Mockingbird.” But Italian cuisine still had a grip on him. “I always wanted to do something as a tribute to my mom’s family,” he says. That noisy, exuberant clan figures large in his childhood memories. “We have a picture, taken in 1904, of my grandfather’s family at Ellis Island,” he says. Eventually, some of the Mazzantinis made their way to Texas. His mother was born in Galveston, and as a child Sheely spent time there and in Houston. “On the weekends,” he says, “my parents and I would go visit my aunts, Clementine and Sylvia, in their big old spooky Victorian house in Galveston. There would be pasta hanging on drying racks everywhere and mountains of food. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Family recipes from that era were part of the mix when he decided to revisit his Italian roots. “We had some pretty authentic stuff back then,” he says. A favorite ravioli, for instance, called for lamb brains, ricotta, and spinach. “We had to update that one,” he laughs. It now has veal sweetbreads and kale, with toasted pine nuts. He consulted dozens of other recipes, of course, and embarked on the type of gluttonous R&D that chefs are prone to do, traveling to big American cities and eating at as many osterias as he could. Paul K. Lewis came on as executive chef and Kelsey Hawkins as pastry chef, adding their expertise and individuality. The end result, which Sheely describes as “Old World meets New World meets Gulf Coast,” is an homage to his own past, brought up to date with twenty-first-century ideas and ingredients. Pretty good for a recovering ski bum.
Osteria Mazzantini: 2200 Post Oak Blvd., Houston (713-993-9898). L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. B Sat & Sun. $$–$$$