Restaurants / Openings

Old School Houston Italian Restaurant Makes a Remarkable Transformation

Saved From Shuttering by the Berg Brothers, It’s Now an Awards Contender

BY // 06.11.18

Long a neighborhood favorite in the Energy Corridor, venerable Carmelo’s Cucina Italiana is enjoying a transformation that already has Inner Loopers thinking, in Michelin star lingo, “It’s worth the drive.” Since saving the 37-year-old restaurant from closing for good in December, restaurateur extraordinaire Benjamin Berg and his brother, chef Daniel Berg, have been upping the game when it comes to pastas, sauces and classic Italian fare.

Not much had changed in the Italian restaurant since Carmelo Mauro opened it in 1981. The kitschy decor including shiny yellow banquettes, the leaning tower of Pisa replica and mammoth antique sideboard with flowers kept regulars comfortable with the familiar surroundings. But changes are inevitable when new owners take the helm.

“The menu has completely changed, except the meatballs,” Chef Berg tells PaperCity. “We had to keep Carmelo’s famous meatballs because this neighborhood loves him and loves his meatballs. If ain’t broken, don’t fix it, right?”

Berg arrived in Houston some four months ago, after a long stint in his hometown of New York City. The temptation to join his brother in a business venture and to live in the same city, not to mention the cheaper rent, lured newly-married Berg away from his post as executive chef at the Tribeca bistro Yves.

Chef Berg

Benjamin Berg’s younger brother, by three years, likes to say he learned his trade through on-the-job training. That’s true in part as his CV includes time in Italy where he not only trained at the internationally-recognized Alma La Scuola di Cucina but also did yeoman’s work at Michelin three star Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan and Michelin two star Principe Cerami in Sicily.

When back in New York, his credentials soared.

Famed restaurateur and chef Andrew Carmellini brought Berg on board to help open three concepts including Locanda Verde, The Dutch and Bar Primi. Although Italian is his preferred cuisine, Berg honed his French culinary skills as the chef tournant at Le Bernardin and Daniel, both famed three Michelin star and New York Times four-star rated restaurants.

It comes as no surprise then that guests are swooning over Carmelo’s handmade pastas, the to-die-for chicken Scarpiello, the ricotta ravioli with black truffles and leeks, and more.

With training also in restaurant management, Berg is slowly but surely shifting Carmelo’s interiors to reflect a contemporary business model and to accommodate changing customer tastes. For example, he is taking one of the large party rooms and expanding it into a destination bar.

“I think this neighborhood especially needs that,” Daniel Berg says. “There’re not a lot of options out here.”

The work is being conducted in stages throughout the slow summer months with no closing anticipated.

Regulars of Benjamin Berg’s uber popular B&B Butchers & Restaurant who give Carmelo’s a try will recognize Joe Malheiro, formerly of B&B, who oversees the front of the house. And he has a very good memory, sure to recognize and warmly greet B&B regulars.

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