In the ever-evolving landscape of Rice Village, the closure of “Bistro des Amis” was not generally considered a change for the better by their small but loyal following. A tough act to follow? You bet, but lo and behold within just a few weeks of opening, Sud Italia, the successor to the space, is receiving terrific reviews.
When a new restaurant receives early accolades, it’s usually a sign of an internal management team with multiple past successes in the restaurant business. Such is the case with Sud Italia, led by avid restaurateur Shanon Scott (formerly of Arturo’s Uptown Italiano) and his business partner Wende Scott, both of whom have taken special pains to design a concept that carves out a place for their establishment in the increasingly competitive Italian food scene in Houston.
One recognizes this fact first in the menu, which, as the name Sud Italia suggests, focuses on specialties from that region of the country. So, fans of red sauce Italian-American food, look elsewhere for your veal parmesan; likewise, those devoted to signature dishes from the upper half of the boot (e.g., risotto, polenta, etc.) should reconsider their allegiances. Especially because what’s good at Sud Italia is really, really good.
The less-than-likeable elements of Sud Italia are, to be fair, mostly beyond their control. Parking in Rice Village can be a pain and the low ceilings and beige paint of the interior dining room make it a wee bit claustrophobic (solution: eat on the wonderful patio). But these minor flaws are more than worth tolerating for the stellar service and excellent food.
Standout antipasti include the piquant, refreshing burrata con pomodoro, thick wedges burrata cheese spliced with tomato and dressed with mint and basil, and the earthy bruschetta alla calamari, loaded with sautéed squid and cannelloni beans. Even otherwise pedestrian offerings from this section of the menu have been given a twist; see, for example, the arancini, Sicilian fried rice balls stuffed with meat and cheese. Sud Italia’s version distinguishes itself most favorably via the inclusion saffron, which adds an exotic medicinal note to the dish.
Confession: As a carbohydrate junkie, I am biased toward the primi at any Italian restaurant and therefore are eager to sing the praises of pasta. However, other outside, more objective parties have confirmed that the “macaroni and gravy” dishes (as my Irish grandmother used to call them) at Sud Italia are par excellence. Specifically, I’m referring to the pizzaiola di spaghetti al nero di seppia, a brooding, intoxicating assemblage of noodles of a death-black hue thanks to a healthy infusion of squid ink, sweet lobster meat, and pizzaiola, a type of tomato sauce spiced with oregano. Also very good is the orecchiette con salsiccia, rapini e pomodoro e porcino, a pasta whose name means “little ear” in Italian and whose shape is that of cute, sickle-like cups perfect for scooping up additional sauce and the occasionally errant mushroom.
Although heretofore much of the press for Sud Italia has focused on dinner dining, let it be known that more than respectable lunch, and on Saturday and Sunday, brunch fare are on hand. Medical Center workers will appreciate the chance to escape (albeit) briefly to the Mediterranean on early weekday afternoons by ordering one of Sud Italia’s artfully constructed salads like the al granchio with Vesuvius-size chunks of lump crab meat resting atop lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Weekend shoppers in the Village will find similarly pleasurable fuel in the fresh frittatas packed with vegetables as well as other egg dishes such as the uova al salmon, supple scrambled eggs layered with smoked salmon and capers and drizzled with mustard. Pair that with the $15 bottomless mimosas and you’ll have more than enough courage to finally splurge on that Fendi bag.