Restaurants / Openings

New Italian Restaurant in The Heights Relies on True Experts — How Ben Berg Turned to the Best for Trattoria Sofia

Your First Taste of a Pasta and Thin Crusted Pizza Standout

BY // 12.10.21

One might say it took a proverbial village for restaurateur Benjamin Berg to launch his latest concept, Trattoria Sofia, in the Houston Heights — perhaps a tiny burg outside Palermo, or a remote hamlet high in the hills of Tuscany where one can stop at a trattoria any time for simple, rustic fare..

Fast becoming a formidable force in the world of Texas dining, Berg (founder of Berg Hospitality Group) is the owner and concept maker behind Houston hot spots B&B Butchers, B.B. Lemon, B.B. ItaliaThe Annie Café & BarTurner’s, and now this newest spot, named for his eldest daughter.

To consult on the project, Berg called on experts in their respective fields to consult on the project.

He reached out to former Houstonian baker and chef Magnus Hansson, now based in NYC, to advise him on the menu and help bring an authenticity to the dishes; it’s no surprise that Hansson — former owner of Manna Bread Company of Sugar Land — created Sofia’s in-house bread program, too. Masterful mixologist Alba Huerta, owner of the lauded Houston drinks haven Julep, stepped up with craft cocktails that highlight Italian liqueurs from amaretto to Amaro.

Twenty-plus-year culinary veteran LJ Wiley was hired as exec chef. Sam Governale (operating partner for The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s) led the charge on design, while longtime contributor to everything aesthetic at Berg’s eateries, architect Issac Preminger made design sense of the space, which had been ravaged by fire.

Trattoria Sofia’s Patio
The picturesque patio of Trattoria Sofia features a large olive tree that will eventually grow up and over the pergula overhead. (Photo Michelle Watson)

In the cozy and comfortable interior, curvaceous banquettes are surrounded by smaller two-top tables with walnut millwork and dark beams. Overhead, pendant lights made of form-cut stacked corrugated cardboard hang over two enormous trees in the center of the room. Made with preserved wood trunks, the custom-crafted trees were modeled after the manna ash indigenous to Sicily. A chili-red Berkel slicer — the Rolls-Royce of meat slicers — stands front and center, telegraphing a respectability to this concept anchored by a semi-open kitchen.

Just outside the iron pane windows is a charming dining alcove, enclosed by vine-covered brick and stucco walls; the garden setting is topped with a pergola that supports a beautiful olive tree whose branches will enviably grow up and over it.

What to Eat at Trattoria Sofia

Start your meal with the Crostini di Gamberi Arrabiata, perfectly spiced crispy shrimp enrobed with tomato sauce and laid over a creamy bed of smoked labneh — a tangy Middle Eastern soft cheese made of strained yogurt, smeared atop toasted bread slices ($16). Salsa Di Ceci E Zucca is a mild pumpkin-and-chickpea dip accompanied by spears of toasted ciabatta for dipping and enlivened with toasted pumpkin seeds and Calabrian chilis ($14).

Thankfully, there isn’t a Caesar salad in sight. Instead, Trattoria Sofia gives us the Cavolo Nero, a simple but well-executed Tuscan kale salad, its leaves made tender by massaging each with EVOO and salt until they come to a wilt before being tossed with Parmigiano-Reggiano, smoked chili-and-garlic dressing, toasted bread crumbs, and leaves of fresh basil and mint that land as fresh sparks of flavor ($14).

Speaking of fresh mint: There’s nothing I’d rather pair with Huerte’s Pimm’s and gin-based Modena Cup ($13) than Wiley’s straightforward plate of toasted walnuts with sprigs of fresh spearmint, spiced honey, and chunks of Parmigiano ($14).

The Polpo Arrosto is on point: red wine-brined octopus gently braised then bathed in a Romanesco-like roasted tomato sauce ($28). Don’t miss the pizzas, particularly the prosciutto variety, its thin crust topped with elegantly melting fontina and taleggio cheeses, finished with a bite of black pepper and fresh lemon zest ($22).

An array of pizzas served at Trattoria Sofia
A selection of pizzas prepared at the new Trattoria Sofia. (Photo Jenn Duncan)

The pastas — there are just four on the dinner menu — are all made in-house. The standout Bucatini Alla Pesto Siciliano is a long hollow tubular pasta made with a specialty die that cradles the brightly flavored Sicilian pesto made with toasted pistachios, fresh basil, mint, and lemon with the heat of a pepperoncini, topped with a dollop of whipped ricotta ($26).

Here, the famous dish from Sicily known as Casarecce Alla Norma is a scroll-like pasta with curved edges and a subtle groove down the middle that holds the weight of fried eggplant chunks in spicy tomato sauce tossed with shaved ricotta salata ($22).

Casarecce All Norma Pasta at Trattoria Sofia
Casarecce Alla Norma ($22), a famous dish from Sicily, is a scroll-like pasta that holds the weight of fried eggplant chunks in a spicy tomato sauce tossed with shaved ricotta salata. (Photo Jenn Duncan)

Secondi selections include Pollo Alla Parmigiana ($26), Vitello Alla Milanese ($48), and 14-ounce rib-eye (Costata di Mazo Al Gorgonzola Dolce, $82), as well as pan-roasted swordfish (Pesce Spada Alla Siciliana, $44) or monkfish (Coda Di Rospo Di Salsa Verde, $42).

Dessert brings a twist on tiramisu, with the traditional coffee-soaked lady fingers replaced with buttery, crumbled sesame cookies and an espresso-spiked chilly semifreddo taking the place of the cool mascarpone custard — delightful ($16).

Trattoria Sofia, 911 W. 11th St., Houston, 713.804.0429.

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