River Oaks District Restaurant Bari Embraces Well-Executed Italian Classics

Branzino al Sale, baked sea bass in salt

Houston has seen an influx of Italian restaurants over the past few years. The latest has taken up residence in the River Oaks District at 4444 Westheimer. Bari Ristorante opened its doors on May 15. Houston restaurateur Thomas “Tommy” Nally, who has owned and developed restaurants, bars, and nightclubs around the city as well as in New York, the Caribbean and Las Vegas, is the operating partner of Bari. With his background, most would expect something flashy and over the top, but Bari is refreshingly the opposite. More charming than showy, Bari is modern and elegantly understated. There are lovely details such as ceramic chandeliers and lamps at each table, and Himalayan Sea salt walls that add a warm golden glow to the room. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to a patio area overlooking the green common area, which will surely rival neighboring Toulouse for the best people-watching during buzzy brunch hours.

ahi tonno (tuna tartare)
Ahi tonno at Bari Ristorante. Photo by Minh Truong

Overseeing the menu and kitchen is chef Renato De Pirro, a veteran of Hotel Granduca and Dallas-based Lombardy Group. Houston Food Finder was invited to try selections from the menu of classic Italian staples with a few twists. Antipasti includes Tagiliere di Carne (an Italian meat board made up of prosciutto di Parma, mortadella, salami and nduja), Carpaccio di Manzo, carpaccio of beef tenderloin with arugula, shaved Reggiano cheese and lemon truffle dressing, and fritto misto, fried calamari and rock shrimp with a Calabrian chili aioli. An ahi tonno (tuna tartare) was presented as a tower, with layers of avocado and pineapple pico with ginger ponzu, and garnished with fresh radish slices and venere (Italian black rice) rice crisps. Each flavor component worked well together but it was missing a punch of salt.

barbabietole e caprino, roasted beet salad
Barbabietole e caprino, roasted beet salad at Bari Ristorante. Photo by Minh Truong.

We also ordered the barbabietole e caprino, roasted beet salad with baby kale, toasted pistachios and honey balsamic dressing topped with a medallion of Texas goat cheese. The salad was palatable but nothing extraordinary. The goat cheese was the star, and we wanted more of the tartness that it added. Other soup and salad options include a classic insalata caprese and zuppa di Pomodoro (roasted tomato soup).

Gnocchi at Bari Ristorante. Photo by Minh Truong.

There is a selection of pizzas that includes Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes and the signature Bari Pizza with grilled chicken, tomato concasse (diced and stewed tomatoes), black olives and pepper, but we opted for the housemade pastas. The pappardelle Bolognese had a very rich and savory ragu, but the fresh pasta was overcooked, which left it gummy. The gnocchi, on the other hand, was one of the best dishes of the night. The potato dumplings were soft and pillowy and tossed in a delicate Montasio (an Italian semi-hard cow’s cheese) cheese fondue sauce with kale and cherry tomatoes, porcini mushrooms and sauteed shrimp. Gnocchi is associated with heavy sauces, but there was a lightness to the fondue that allowed the other ingredients to shine.

bone-in short rib
Bone-in short rib at Bari Ristorante. Photo by Minh Truong.

From the entrées, the bone-in short rib was a solid dish. The short rib is braised in Chianti and served with polenta, sautéed spinach and mushrooms and finished with a red wine reduction. The tender meat fell from the bone with just a pull of the fork. It was hearty but not too rich or heavy. Other options from the Portata Principale (main dish) section include bone-in veal Milanese, topped with a baby arugula, watercress and cherry tomato salad, and Branzino al Sale, salt-baked sea bass with roasted vegetables.

Pistachio Tiramisu
Pistachio tiramisu at Bari Ristorante. Photo by Minh Truong.

Dessert offerings include Italian standards such as Bombolini, a warm donut filled with orange cream and cannoli with housemade ricotta, toasted pistachios and chocolate chips. The Pistachio Tiramisu with espresso-soaked ladyfingers was a touch soggy, but the flavor of pistachio was well pronounced.

The cocktails are a highlight. Our server noted that Bari only uses fresh juices and housemade sweeteners. The Lemon Drop martini with housemade limoncello and green chartreuse was bright and refreshing, with just the right balance of tart and sweet. The Dragon Egg, with Aviation Gin, Soho Lychee Liqueur, raspberry-dragon fruit purée, egg white and herb bitters had a unique flavor profile, both tropical and herbaceous. 

The carefully curated wine list  features selections from Italy, including Super Tuscan wines such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello, Brunello, and Amarone, as well as vintages from Spain, Chile, Argentina, France, and the United States.

Bari is a welcome addition to the growing restaurant scene in the River Oaks District. The ambiance is fitting for any occasion, whether it be a leisurely lunch, a dinner date or cocktails at the bar. The menu offers a variety of dishes that make it a good option for groups. With the long list of Italian restaurants to choose from, Bari is not offering innovation, but it does offer an array of fresh, simply prepared, comforting Italian dishes. 

Bari is open Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Note that from Thursday through Saturday, it stays open particularly late —  until 1 a.m. — for your post-revelry meal needs.  Brunch is served on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Reservations are not required but recommended and can be made on the website

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