Restaurants / Openings

Houston’s New Ambitious Italian Restaurant Is a Dallas Import With Plenty of Pizzazz — il Bracco Makes a Post Oak Statement

Former California Pizza Kitchen Space Becomes a Showcase Spot

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Have you been to the Dallas restaurant import that has been bustling since the day it threw open its doors in Houston earlier this August? Il Bracco, the Italian-inspired restaurant first launched in Dallas’ Park Cities neighborhood in 2019, just opened its second location overall and first Houston spot at the corner of San Felipe and Post Oak in the former home of the California Pizza Kitchen.

Designed by the prodigious Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, the 6,000 square foot, two-tiered space features 160 seats inside and 35 outside on a charming pocket patio. Stroll through the large double glass doors at Il Bracco’s entrance and to your left, you’ll spy a spacious oval travertine-topped bar lit with a serpentine-shaped fixture of golden orbs. To your right is a bustling open kitchen and just beyond the hostess stand, you’ll find a dining room that’s dark and moody appointed with low leather banquettes (all the better to people watch). The Houston Il Bracco’s surrounds are fashioned in rich stained walnut wood with original artwork from Alex Katz, Richard Serra, Lucien Freud and Joseph Albers culled together by interior designer (and co-owner Robert Quick’s wife) Mary Lucille.

If the place gives you subtle Hillstone vibes, it’s no wonder why. Owners Robert Quick and Matt Gottlieb are quick studies (no pun intended), who collectively had a long tenure there. An alumni of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, among others, Quick, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (St. Helena campus) who worked for the illustrious chef Thomas Keller’s more casual restaurants Ad Hoc and Bouchon before eventually taking on the role of kitchen manager for Hillstone and moving up and onward elsewhere.

Gottlieb, a 10-year veteran of Hillstone, ran nine of its restaurants, including the Westheimer (Houston’s) location before he joined Quick to conjure up their own Italianesque restaurant, putting into practice the hard-won lessons they’ve learned. Far from an imitator of any restaurant per se, there is no denying the influence Hillstone has had on the style of service and food at il Bracco.

That said, if il Bracco’s (as I suspect) can deliver the consistent quality of food and polished service Hillstone has long garnered a reputation for doing, they’ll soon be a fixture in Houston too. We’re looking at you general manger Marco Wides — and chefs AJ Elftmann and Lester Flores.

The new Italian-inspired restaurant Il Bracco has moved into Post Oak at San Felipe in the former California Pizza Kitchen location.
The new Italian-inspired restaurant Il Bracco has moved into Post Oak at San Felipe in the former California Pizza Kitchen location.

Il Bracco is Italian for “the hound” and its dutiful mascot adorns the seasonal menus at lunch and dinner. Open seven days a week in Houston, the options at both services are largely identical, save for a few more additions at dinner. Cocktails include “The Bracco,” a rendition of the frozen greyhound made with gin, Aperol and fresh grapefruit juice, and the Asti 76 made with Tito’s vodka, lemon and Moscato D’Asti, a take on a classic with an Italian twist. Il Braco’s wine list delivers both varietals from Italy and approachably priced new world wines.

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The il Bracco Menu

When artichokes are in season do try il Bracco’s baby artichokes sliced into bite-sized bits. Flash fried to create a crisp, hot bite, they are shepherded to your table with a side of aioli for dipping ($17). The small simple plate of Sicilian crudo ($22) is an example that less can be so much more. Here a trio of raw big eye tuna, impeccably fresh ora king salmon and jumbo scallops are sliced thinly and presented beneath nothing more than a drizzle of good olive oil, sea salt, capers and diced onions.

If any place is going to call itself Italian (or inspired by it), they have to have a decent meatball, no excuses. Il Bracco’s appetizer of meatballs is made with a combination of beef, pork and lamb (no veal as Nonna might have done) and is topped with grated Reggiano and a chiffonade of fresh basil. They are as tender as they should be enrobed in a thick tomato gravy. But even better are the go-withs beside them.

I’m talking about the addictive spears of crisp, yet chewy house-made focaccia with a crunchy herb crust scented with fragrant olive oil. When I dined at Houston’s il Bracco, I noticed the restaurant offers an app of focaccia ($11) and serve it with a whipped ricotta spread seasoned with roasted garlic and thyme, of course, I requested a side of the unctuous spread, too, and suggest you do the same.

A whole leaf Caesar ($13), seasonal burrata salad ($14), and a chopped salad made with salami, aged provolone, Castelvetrano olives, piquillo peppers and pepperoncini ($18) round out the cool greens. The plaza salad ($20) can make a meal and is a cult favorite we’re told. I was intrigued and ordered it because some of my favorite ingredients are in it. Including roasted chicken, golden beets, pancetta, Marcona almonds and goat cheese. All tossed in a balanced honey vinaigrette.

il Bracco Post Oak Interior Gallery Wall (Photo by Photos Courtesy of il Bracco)
The interior of the new Houston Il Bracco features art from Alex Katz, Lucien Freud, and Richard Serra.

Fans of Hulu’s hit series The Bear, where the main character leaves the fine dining world to manage his Chicago family’s sandwich shop where the star is arguably the shaved beef sandwich, might venture to try il Bracco’s version. The Italian beef sandwich ($22) is made with shaved tri-tip melted provolone, sauteed broccolini and a giardiniera spread accompanied by a warm cup of au jus to dip each and every bite. Its meat is tender and flavor packed with a roll that stands up to those hefty fillings but also gives gently under your bite. The burger takes on an Italian accent too, with aged provolone atop the house ground chuck patty, spiced with Calabrian chilies and layered with fennel, arugula and onions ($17).

Pasta noodles, like il Bracco’s breads, are made in-house. The red pepper spiked spicy gemelli ($20), small twists of noodles tossed in a spicy vodka sauce is a signature, I’m told, while the bolognese is a six-hour slow braise of beef, lamb and pork ragu wound around ruffled-edge mafaldine noodles ($24). Vegetarians might want to try Il Braco’s deftly made eggplant parmesan. With a thick steak-like consistency, each round is salted prior to remove its bitter essence before each is breaded and fried then topped with tomato sauce and hot, oozing mozzarella ($23).

Steaks like the New York strip ($45) and the center cut filet ($49) are USDA prime, butchered in-house and broiled to your desired doneness. (I’m hoping that would not be well-done.) Fish includes a Patagonian sourced salmon that’s pesto crusted ($33), while the Mediterranean sea bass comes topped with a gremolata ($30).

Desserts are $12 and the one I can rave about is il Bracco’s Italian sundae. (Unfortunately, the restaurant’s chocolate torte, lemon tart and buttermilk panna cotta all left me feeling like they need a stronger depth of flavor and a play of textures on the plate.) However, the sundae is perfect.

Presented in a chilly old-fashioned metal coupe, creamy vanilla ice cream is topped with a drizzle of olive oil, a dollop of whipped cream, sea salt and chopped pistachios. I know it might seem an unlikely pairing to some, but trust me the floral scent of the E.V.O.O. combined with a touch of salt, pistachios and the richness of the freshly whipped cream is a beautiful blend of sweet meets savory.

Il Bracco’s new Houston restaurant is located at 1705-A Post Oak Boulevard.

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