MUCH LIKE BUZZY trattorias across Italy during the holidays, Champagne corks pop, flutes clink and white lights twinkle among a hum of international chatter at newly rebranded Alba Ristorante in Hotel Granduca. Owner Giorgio Borlenghi named Alba for both a city in northern Italy that's celebrated for its white truffles and the Italian word for "a new beginning." With an alluring setting and menu, it's just one of several new Italian spots — each one unique, from lavish to chic and upbeat American-Italian.
At Alba, formerly Ristorante Cavour, chef Maurizio Ferrarese touts a sleek new menu showcasing his flair for Northern Italian cuisine, specifically truffles and risotto. He personally delivers signature dishes to the table, like scallops with shaved black truffles met with "oohs and "ahhs" from guests. "We offer an experience, not just fine cuisine," says Ferrarese, who has helmed Granduca's kitchen since 2018.
Alba aims to provide seamless service without being invasive, and proffer opulent dinner selections: seafood dishes made with ingredients sourced from the Gulf and Mediterranean, truffles from Italy, pristine miniature local vegetables. Desserts are exquisite — the ethereal raspberry panna cotta wrapped in red velvet may rival any gift under your tree.
Speaking of, feeling holiday-stressed? Settle into cush banquettes in this softly lit, intimate space, and the tension will suddenly melt away. Rilassare. Italians do not rush meals.
Alba's executive chef Maurizio Ferrarese
Salmon and foie gras at Alba
Concura's patio along Mid Lane
Ferrarese assures "holiday degustazione menus are in place." So, let's start at the stunning new Champagne Bar, complete with an 18th-century Italian bibliotheque and a hand-painted ceiling mural. Ideal for casual drop-ins, the bar's Champagne Encounter pairs three Champagnes with a trio of fancy snacks (think blini and caviar, Italian cheeses, cocktail shrimp). Optionally, consider the Cocktail Encounter.
"We are adding dishes to our tasting menus that represent holiday traditions in Italy," says Ferrarese. "Growing up in Piedmont ... we always had lots of antipasti, panettone desserts, and the best Barbera and Barolo wines." Holiday tasting menus are on offer Dec. 24 and Dec. 31, and private parties of 25 to 35 guests can be booked in advance.
At stylish hidden gem Concura near the River Oaks District, owner Jessica Biondi, who lived in the San Marino beach region of central Italy, describes her new concept as "traditional Italian meets contemporary, with Adriatic coastal flavors." The restaurant has been a passion project in the works for almost a decade for Biondi, a fashion and design consultant who pays keen attention to detail, right down to Concura's signature fragrance added to the air conditioning system.
Chef Angelo Cuppone's menu has a focus on fish, including sea bass carpaccio, vitello tonnato (thinly sliced veal draped in tuna sauce) and a riff on tuna tartare served over snowy burrata. Seafood is inventively worked into pastas: Witness sturdy homemade gnocchi with saffron and shrimp, and fresh chitarrine egg pasta with rich fish ragu. But Cuppone knows "meat is a must in Texas," and prepares a beautiful filet of beef dish with smoked herbs, rabbit in porchetta, and three tasting menus. Do try the chocolate salami and Parmesan ice cream!
"When in Italy, the holidays are the annual highlight, so we are following suit," adds Biondi. Concura's Grand Italian Christmas Dinner is Dec. 23; reserve ahead for the prix fixe spread of Italian classics spotlighting fish, "the Italian sacrifice meal to save beef for Christmas day." A peek at the menu reveals baccalà (cod) in tomato sauce with potatoes, gnocchi de pesce, and panettone (dessert bread) with sweet cream.
For an added treat, custom gift baskets with pannetone, wine and Concura candles are on offer. As a gathering spot, the captivating patio with flickering candles, strings of lights and festive décor channels a charming Italian village, even though you are tucked away off Mid Lane sitting under towering oaks.
Meanwhile, Heights-area Trattoria Sofia, scheduled to open today from Berg Hospitality, is all about exploring different culinary regions of Italy with a fun, approachable vibe — reminiscent of cruising in an Alpha Romeo convertible through the Tuscan countryside. With stucco walls covered in vines and hues of teal, dusty pink and terracotta, Sofia looks like a trattoria you might stumble upon in rural Italy, with enchanting and spacious indoor and outdoor garden seating.
Sofia's menu will usher you back home after the holiday with familiar American-Italian favorites — veal chop Milanese, clams oreganata tartine, eggplant toast — all lifted with surprising twists. "Restaurateurs always refer to their concepts as their 'babies,' but as the first restaurant I've named after one of my children, Trattoria Sofia holds a special place in my heart," says owner Benjamin Berg.