In West Houston, B.B. Italia and B.B. Pizza are delicious additions to restaurateur Ben Berg’s growing portfolio. By Megha Tejpal, Photos by Jenn Duncan and Kirsten Gilliam
Ben Berg is sitting on top of Houston’s restaurant world at the moment. The fearless entrepreneur with an Empire State of mind swooped in last year to keep iconic Memorial concept Carmelo’s alive. Reinventing the restaurant as two concepts, B.B. Italia and B.B. Pizza (14795 Memorial Dr., 281.531.0696), Berg is not only expanding his portfolio to the west, but also inside the Loop: He recently announced his involvement in the rebirth of another Houston staple, Café Annie, with Robert Del Grande, which will reopen as The Annie Café & Bar this fall. And a second location of B.B. Lemon opens in the former home of Pax Americana in Montrose later this summer.
Back in Memorial, Berg has opted to make B.B. Italia a family affair, enlisting partner and younger brother Daniel Berg as the executive chef for the dual concept. Daniel, an alum of restaurants Le Bernardin and Locanda Verde in New York, moved to Houston with his wife 15 months ago and has been ever present in the transition from Carmelo’s final phase to the launch of what has quickly become a buzzy neighborhood hangout.
“Nothing on this menu is the way it was when it was Carmelo’s,” Daniel says. “You may see spaghetti and meatballs, but this is my spaghetti and meatballs.” The younger Berg says while he uses techniques he picked up over his culinary career in New York, he could not help but incorporate some Houston color into the menu — as in the Italian grits, which he says is really polenta with a little down-home country influence. The Calabrian chili-spiced fried chicken is a hearty plate of Southern comfort, and the Italian cherry-pepper-glazed baby-back ribs are hot and sticky — in the best way.
The emphasis here is on true Italian-American cuisine, and the menu is vast. The whipped Ricotta is decadent and earthy, spiced with Sicilian oregano and accompanied by a crusty loaf. Daniel promises the linguini with clam sauce is even more traditional and authentic than ever before, made with chopped clams and a savory white-wine sauce. The candied-pecan-topped three-cheese ravioli is a new addition all together.
While Daniel says classic New York establishments like Il Mulino and Parm have helped influence his menu at B.B. Italia, famed Big Apple spots like Bleeker Street Pizza, Joe’s and Angelo’s on Mulberry Street have helped give him the edge in the B.B. Pizza department. “You can’t come here and not try our pizza,” he insists with a laugh. The casual, New York-style menu lists 8- and 16-inch pizzas, meat-filled subs, and calzones baked to a golden crisp.
Naturally, food is the main attraction here, but with its chic Memorial address and massive makeover, B.B. Italia is also a pretty place to kick back. The indelible leaning tower of Pisa from Carmelo’s remains in the foyer, but now vintage photos line the restaurant, leading from room to room, connecting private dining spaces. The new enclosed and manicured patio offers live music, and an expansive bar area is kept festive and fun, under the watchful eye of Daniel and Ben’s own children: An oversized portrait hangs on a central wall, maintaining the mantra of family above all else. Now that’s amoré.
AT TOP: The cheesy stuffed pepperoni roll at B.B. Pizza