First Bite: Elegant Italian Restaurant Tantalizes River Oaks

Even though River Oaks Italian restaurant Zanti Cucina Italiana opened in November at 1958 West Gray, it’s already made quite an impression —  we named it an honorable mention on our 2022 list of Best New Restaurant. It’s the second location from founder Santiago “Santi” Peláez and his team; the original in The Woodlands opened in 2019. Joining Peláez in this venture are director of operations Stefano Ferrero and executive chef Hilario Zamora

The River Oak’s outpost boasts an expanded selection of entrées and an upscale experience similar to the original. While Zanti’s menu does include some modern Italian dishes, much of it focuses on more traditional Italian cuisine, and offers an extensive selection of charcuterie, antipasti, pizza, pasta, soups, salads, meat and seafood.

In the restaurant, there are dedicated areas for pasta-making, charcuterie-slicing and pizza-baking — clear, visual indicators that there’s an emphasis on scratch-made cuisine.

The tiramisu at Zanti is served in a moka pot.
The tiramisu at Zanti is served in a moka pot. Photo by Ryan Baker.

Houston Food Finder was invited to try some dishes, starting with appetizers. The selection includes  burrata caprese, eggplant parmigiana and fritto misto Mediterraneo, with shrimp, calamari and artichoke. We tried the Duo Di Tonno. A dish that’s two appetizers in one, it comes with yellowfin tuna tartare with baby heirloom tomatoes and beef carpaccio topped with lemon dressing and capers. The tuna, topped with light, crisp ribbons of mild green tomato, is chopped into bites large enough to offer a firm texture. It is a perfect opening act for any meal. Unfortunately, the carpaccio plated alongside was the only disappointment of the meal. The thin slices were practically glued to the plate by highly-acidic lemon dressing, making it nearly inedible. Impressively, the server noticed the untouched beef, and notified a manager, who visited our table to ask for thoughts and suggestions.

The pizza oven at Zanti is center stage, literally, as it anchors the middle of the restaurant. The menu features eight options, including Margherita, prosciutto di Parma and lobster with white Parmesan sauce, mozzarella, garlic and basil.

Rigatoni All’Amatriciana at Zanti Cucina Italiana.
Rigatoni All’Amatriciana at Zanti Cucina Italiana. Photo by Ryan Baker.

Like the pizza, Zanti’s pasta is housemade. The Black Truffle Tagliolini came highly recommended, as did the beef ravioli in red wine and Parmigiano Reggiano sauce. However, the rigatoni all’amatriciana was my favorite dish. The rigatoni was al dente, with perfect chewiness, and tossed in mildly spicy pomodoro sauce and served with tender, generous bites of guanciale (pork jowl, the better bacon), peperoncino and Parmigiano Reggiano. I intended to eat just a few bites, saving room for the next few courses, but it was so good, I couldn’t stop until the bowl was empty.

Salt Baked Branzino, plated tableside.
Salt-Baked Branzino, plated tableside. Photo by Ryan Baker.

The pesci e carne (fish and meat) section of the menu offers diners options such as Braised-Lamb Ossobuco with Parmigiano Reggiano risotto and Lamb T-bone & Chops in mint and pea sauce served with sautéed mushrooms, roasted red peppers and Brussels sprouts. The branzino baked in sea salt is plated tableside, and then tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with flake salt and served with grilled vegetables. The minimalist seasoning was welcome after the intensity of the rigatoni all’amatriciana.

Desserts include crostata al limone (lemon tart), panna cotta with fresh berries and mint and a tiramisù that is served in a moka pot. Additionally, there are seven gelato and sorbet options, and coffee.

The Matteo, a cocktail at Zanti.
The Matteo, a cocktail at Zanti. Photo by Ryan Baker.

I am particular about cocktails, especially at restaurants where they are often a weakness. After a few back-to-back letdowns, the thoughtful and well-executed drink program at Zanti was refreshing. The bar maintains the same levels of elegance and execution as the kitchen. Though, beverage director Malachi Boykin does not play it too safe. The Nordic Wind, for example, made from aquavit, dill syrup, fresh lemon juice and apricot liqueur, has the potential to taste like alcoholic pickle juice. Instead, it’s a bright, herbaceous cocktail that is well-balanced and mildly sweet. In addition to a selection of house cocktails, the bar has classics from around the world, with a special section for cocktails of Italian origin, as well as after-dinner cocktails, zero-proof drinks and a by-the-glass selection that focused on Italian wines.

Zanti is open Monday through Wednesday from 4 to 10 p.m., Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations are available on OpenTable, and tend to fill up early.

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