Coming up on its first year open, Bistecca is a contemporary, design-happy and cocktail-savvy steakhouse that never quite lifts its toes from the lovely land and water of Italy. It’s the sophisticated sibling of popular Sorrento a few blocks up Westheimer, and it attracts the same avid following—but then heads in a direction that Italian fare in America rarely does.
“I’ve been in this neighborhood off and on since 1973—that’s 43 years,” owner Abbas Hussein offers, clearly a little surprised by his own life story. “And nearly all of that, except for my time with Bruce Molzan at Ruggles, has been about Italian food.” He laughs, wondering whether to say it, then deciding yes: “People who know me say that for a guy from Pakistan, I turned out to be a pretty good Italian.”
For seasoned travelers, the restaurant’s name should immediately evoke thoughts of the famous Tuscan classic, bistecca fiorentina, a seared steak made with that region’s iconic beef. I often joke that it’s one very large piece of meat passed by one very small flame. In its namesake Florence, bistecca is not for the squeamish. It’s often served in large, bloody portions for special occasions. Happily and smartly, Hussein and his chef know to steer closer to medium-rare than to raw and also to trim it to serve just two to four people, rather than an entire extended Italian family. The dish, actually a porterhouse combining filet and strip, is certainly a must-try.
You enter the restaurant from Westheimer through a door that deposits you at the bar, a serious floor-to-ceiling booze collection. I go Italian immediately with a skillfully crafted Negroni. Here, there’s a long counter and a community-style table for eating, and to my undying delight, there is not a television in sight. Beyond the bar are the glassed-in wine racks and the attractive Wine Room, perfect for small parties looking for a bit of privacy.
The menu here is actually three menus, counting the list of desserts that’s presented at the end. Instead of daily specials, there’s a monthly mini-menu of seasonal items that have impressed the chef. Many of these are Italian, mostly—a recent offering showcased strozzopreti (an oh-so-Italian pasta meaning “choke the priest”). But don’t be shocked if French, Spanish or even Asian flavors sneak in. Showing up at or about the same time, however, is the extensive a la carte menu, with its crazy-generous selection of small plates, appetizers divided into raw and cooked, salads, soups and pastas.
Best bets from this tangle of enticements include the shrimp with spicy lobster sauce, the cold-water oyster gratin, the grilled calamari spiedini (skewers) and the very classical lobster bisque. Favorite pastas include an unexpected shrimp mac and cheese with roasted peppers and caramelized onions, along with Parmesan-baked sweet potato gnocchi. For Little Italy purists, there’s a nifty spaghetti alla carbonara, plus a soul-satisfying risotto with porcini mushrooms and asparagus. In lieu of the more common insalata caprese, there’s a very good tomato salad with red onion and blue cheese crumbles.
Hedging his carnivorous bets, Hussein offers not only bistecca fiorentina, in 36- and 60-ounce cuts, but a more American steakhouse array of filet mignon, strip and rib-eye, some available bone-in, as so many prefer these days. In yet another surprise cameo, beef tenderloin shows up flattened and grilled with chimichurri sauce—more or less the Latin churrasco that Houston’s Cordua family has long made its own. If you prefer, there’s an excellent braised veal osso buco in the style of Milan, plus a whole branzino with simply steamed parsley potatoes and balsamic infused with herbs.
Knowing better than to dish up an apple or a pear as might happen in real-live Italy, Bistecca goes with more decadent desserts. Chocolate lovers definitely should opt for the six-layer cake devoted to their obsession, not least to scarf up its dark chocolate cabernet ganache, while others should enjoy the ricotta cheesecake with cherry and poached pear, or even one of the three semifreddo options. Mostly like gelato in Italy or ice cream over here, this is a lovely variation that’s only half-frozen. If you’ve ever eaten ice cream in the process of melting around birthday cake at a party and marveled at how great it tastes, don’t compliment yourself too much. The Italians, not to mention the honorary one named Abbas Hussein of Sorrento and now Bistecca, got there way ahead of you.