An Authentic Italian Restaurant in The Heights — Ben Berg’s Trattoria Sofia Relies on True Experts

One might say it took a proverbial village for prolific restaurateur Benjamin Berg to launch his latest Houston restaurant. Trattoria Sofia is located in The Heights, but it would be at home in 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 dining, Berg (founder of Berg Hospitality Group) is the owner and idea man behind Houston hotspots B&B Butchers & Restaurant, BB Lemon, BB Italia, The Annie Cafe & Bar, Turner’s and Trattoria Sofia, named for his eldest daughter.

Shelby Hodge first wrote about Trattoria Sofia for PaperCity when it opened in November. Read that full story here.

To consult on the project, Berg called on experts in their respective fields. He reached out to form Houstonian baker and executive chef Magnus Hansson, now based in New York City to advise him on the menu and 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 spot Julep, stepped up to craft cocktails that highlight Italian liqueurs, from amaretto to Amaro. Twenty-plus-year culinary veteran LJ Wiley was hired as executive chef.

Sam Governale (operating partner for The Annie Cafe & Bar and Turner’s) led the charge on design. Longtime contributor to everything aesthetic at Berg’s restaurants, architect Issac Preminger made design sense of the space, which had been ravaged by fire.

In the cozy and comfortable interior of Trattoria Sofia, 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.

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.

The interior of the new Trattoria Sofia in the Houston Heights. (Photo by Michelle Watson)

What to Order 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 slice breads ($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-brinated 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).

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).

Polpo Arrosto, Wood fire-roasted octopus with Sicilian tomato pesto, crispy potatoes, salsa verde, basil, parsley, and lemon. (Photo by Kirsten Gilliam)

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) .

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

Trattoria Sofia, 911 West 11th St., (713) 804-0429.

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