First Bite: Pastore’s Menu Shows the Elegant Side of Underbelly Hospitality
Underbelly Hospitality’s Pastore debuted on June 30 at 1180 Dunlavy in Regent Square, just a stone’s throw from sister restaurant Georgia James. The Italian concept is a long time in the making. Initially, it was meant to be the permanent extension of One Fifth Red Sauce, the last iteration of the Chris Shepherd-era rotating restaurant. While the name (“pastore” is Italian for shepherd) and the inspiration remain the same, the cuisine has shifted to coastal Italian seafood. Diners expecting Italian American comfort food like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan and New York Style cheesecake won’t find it here — but those who truly enjoy fresh, Italian-style fare may enjoy the restaurant nonetheless.
The décor is also a departure from anything Underbelly has done before. If steakhouse Georgia James is masculine, then Pastore is feminine — decidedly softer and more elegant, although the yacht-rock soundtrack adds a touch of whimsy. Guests are greeted in the main dining room with shades of blue and lovely brass light fixtures. The main dining room’s focal point is a mural of cascading flowers, one of the many floral elements. Diners also get a special view into the kitchen through an oval window, and hanging over the expedition counter is a gold butterfly chandelier. The small, well-thought-out details are really what make the space so captivating, like the hand-painted titles, the rattan canes at the hostess stand, the wooden canopy with dangling lights over the bar, and — my favorite touch — the hand-pressed flowers on the menus.
The look and feel of the restaurant aren’t the only feminine touch. While the kitchen is led by executive chef Jeff Potts, the front-of-house team is made up of powerhouse women industry veterans, including operations manager Lindsey Heffron and bar lead (for both Pastore and Georgia James), Sarah Troxell, a national Speed Rack winner previously with Nobie’s and The Toasted Coconut. Additionally, Underbelly Hospitality recently promoted director of operations Nina Quincy to president of the company. In fact, all of the executives listed on the Underbelly Hospitality website are women.
Pastore opens during a time when Houston is seeing a surge of new Italian restaurants, including Bari, Marmo and Zanti, among others — and with Pastore being the first venture following Chris Shepard’s departure, there are some expectations for it to live up to. For a first visit, I say it does.
It is clear that Pastore is trying to do things a little differently. The menu is tightly focused, mostly consisting of shareable small plates of fresh seafood but anchored by a handful of pastas and mains. At first glance it seems simple — too simple — but upon reading the ingredients, the details aren’t just in the décor but in the ingredients, flavors and presentation of each meticulously crafted dish.
The small plates section includes nine shareable dishes, including crudo, oysters, a panzanella salad and stuffed calamari. We chose the Lightly Cured Gulf Snapper with fennel, Castelveltrano olive and lemon oil, and it was a favorite of the evening. The delicate flavors worked perfectly with the sweetness of the snapper, and the olives and lemon rind balanced the dish with a touch of acid and slight bitterness.
I had my eye on the Crispy Anchovies and Sage and our server advocated for it, claiming he had never been a fan of anchovies until this dish. The anchovy is stuffed inside sage leaves that are lightly battered in a flour and cornstarch mixture, like that of a fritto misto, and deep fried. I wanted to love this dish, but it was a little greasy. Anchovies are polarizing, but if you love anchovies, the salty, umami flavor really does work nicely with the earthy sage leaves. I also appreciated the addition of battered-and-fried lemons, although the batter seemed unnecessary, as it dulled the citrus notes. The sage-enveloped anchovies came with a brown butter aioli that went uneaten; the creaminess made the dish feel even oiler.
The four pasta offerings include Kale Cavatelli, Chicken Sausage Ravioli en Brodo and Swordfish Amatriciana. Our choice was the fra diavolo: squid ink linguini in a spicy tomato sauce with a generous assortment of seafood, including clams, scallops and mussels all dusted with seasoned bread crumbs. I’d happily return just to have this dish, which was rustic and comforting like pasta should be but also delicate and expertly executed. The handmade pasta was al dente, and the chunky sauce was robust but still light enough to where it just coated the linguini noodles. The spice level was enjoyable and didn’t overpower the seafood flavor. Each bite was packed with layers of flavor.
A selection of flatbreads includes margherita, salumi, Italian sausage and Mission Fig. Another suggestion from our server was the bianca, with clam and guanciale (cured meat made from pork cheek). The flatbread, baked in the kitchen’s hearth, was a bit dense but still crispy. The sweet clams and salty guanciale made for a good pairing and I enjoyed the punch of the whole cloves of roasted garlic strewn throughout. While good, I felt it was missing something, perhaps some peppery arugula, which would have added some freshness.
The porchetta is one of only three large plate offerings, the others being Hearth Roasted Branzino Puttanesca and chicken Milanese. Pastore’s porchetta is made with roasted pork belly that’s served atop a white bean ragout and garnished with watercress and mustard seed. Ironically, this non-seafood dish was one of the highlights of the meal. The pork belly skin was crispy, while the meat inside was tender. Once you shattered the thin, crackling skin, the layer of moist meat easily gave way with a scrape of the fork. A bite of the tender, aromatic meat seasoned with some of the hearty ragout was a comforting bite. It is the perfect dish to share amongst the table. Our only regret was not ordering a side dish from the contorni section, Either the rapini or spinach would have been an ideal foil to the rich pork.
For dessert, ordering the Celery Root Panna Cotta was a must. The panna cotta is served with hunks of glazed fig and topped with limoncello sabayon. Every element of this dessert made sense together; the fresh undertones of celery flavor, and the honey-nectar notes from the figs along with the tartness of the sabayon. Unfortunately, the panna cotta was not set and instead of being a luxurious custard, it had almost the same loose, creamy texture of the sabayon. It deserves a second visit, and hopefully the panna cotta will have the proper texture next time.
In contrast to the small food menu, you’ll pore over the extensive wine list that focuses on unique Italian wines from lesser-known regions. We chose the Venica Ronco Cero, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc that paired well with every dish. Cocktails enthusiasts will be very happy with the selection of cocktails crafted by Troxell. Creative cocktails like the Olio-tini — olive oil-washed Malfy gin with Mulassano extra dry vermouth and bay leaf — make good use of Italian spirits and ingredients.
It has been a busy year for Underbelly Hospitality. It closed GJ Tavern and is soon relocating and replacing Wild Oats. The opening of Pastore comes at just the right time, showing that despite the headline-making changes, good food is still at the forefront.
Pastore is open for dinner service Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Lunch service was recently launched and is available Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Diners can expect the same small plate selections along with additional salad options and sandwiches, including a PLT (porchetta, lettuce and tomato), that may be well worth a lunch date.
Minh Truong is an avid lover of the Houston food scene and has written about it since 2011, starting as a freelance contributor for the Houston Press. She never stopped exploring all that Houston has to offer, and after a seven-year hiatus returned to writing about it, this time with Houston Food Finder.