Seagoing Italian

At Lombardi Mare, one of Dallas' top restaurateurs explores uncharted waters

It's been 15 years years since Alberto Lombardi, the man who invented Italian food in Dallas, opened a restaurant here. After his trattoria "concept" hit pay dirt, he took the show on the road, and in the past 20 years, he has opened restaurants in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami, Orlando, and Captiva Island. So the grand opening of the gorgeous new Lombardi Mare in Addison in early December was a homecoming. To make absolutely sure we were glad to see him, Alberto presented a gala to benefit Bryan's House where Dallasites could do a good deed the way we like to--by dressing up, eating, and drinking. But after eating a few times at Lombardi Mare, I think there really is just cause for celebration.

Alberto Lombardi made his fortune, starting from zero, on obvious ideas. He told me once he slept in the bus station for a few nights after he arrived in Dallas; I know he worked in several Dallas restaurants before climbing his way up in the kitchen at that Dallas conduit to culinary success, the Fairmont Hotel. His first restaurant, where he and Luciano were kissing hands years before Franco Bertolasi started smacking, hardly seems revolutionary now that Italy owns most restaurant tables, but Dallas had never eaten Italian food like Lombardi served. We were strictly a marinara town. A few pricey palaces like Mario's served "Northern Italian," meaning veal, but as far as we knew, Italy had only those two regions--red and white, south and north, hearty and elegant. Obviously, Alberto Lombardi didn't invent the Italian trattoria; he just opened the first one in Dallas, an idea nearly as brilliantly mundane as bringing McDonald's to Moscow.

The theme of his new restaurant, Lombardi Mare, is just as ingeniously simple. Italian seafood is right on the mark in terms of customer demand--take two of the hottest trends in restaurants today and combine them. How could you lose? And although we know all about regional Italian food now (yes, it turns out there are more than two regions), no one had yet come up with the simple idea of a menu featuring just seafood, Italian style. But the boot is surrounded by water on three sides--pasta and cheese are the glories of Italian food, but seafood is a staple. It's hard to see how you could miss pleasing with this concept, and Lombardi Mare doesn't.

Because Alberto Lombardi is a pro and it shows. He's had great success in the piranha-infested waters of the restaurant business, and his simple defense against the perils is excellence. At Lombardi Mare, he's hired experts wherever he needed them, and their expertise is evident. Not many restaurants open with as few missteps as this one. From the minute you walk into Lombardi Mare, you know what to expect from the experience; the place prepares you for the evening. The whole point of restaurant interior design is to match the mood to the menu, and in Dallas no one knows how to do it as well as Paul Draper, who designed Anzu and The Crescent Club, among other beautiful places. Lombardi Mare is one of his best efforts. In a lost corner location in Village on the Parkway, a space that used to be a Dalt's (you'll recognize the old-fashioned tile floor, thriftily retained by Draper), he has created an atmosphere that's pristine (an impression we require for seafood) but simultaneously warm and welcoming. The panels of frosted glass etched with abstract, anemone-like patterns, the painted school of fish against a backdrop of reverberating blue, the blue lights behind ship-like grids, are touches of cool modernity in the traditional, oyster-house ambiance, set with high booths and white-clad tables. To the rear is an open kitchen, and to the right is the bar and a long marble table with a file of tall candlesticks set into it, for singles or big groups or oyster-only eaters.

Service was just as professional, though the host was overly effusive and seemingly slightly clueless on our first visit as he bounced around the room, offering friendly inanities in the name of hospitality. But he was savvier than he seemed, following up on a lost dessert (did that first souffle fall, or did the waiter forget to turn in the order?) and, after a neglected welcome on our second visit, when we were deposited at a table and seemingly abandoned, attending to us with profuse apologies. On both visits, our waiters were knowledgeable and friendly--they had to have actually eaten the food and understood its preparation.

Not that this is hard food to comprehend--Alberto's not pushing any envelopes here. Yet the menu does feature several dishes that are simple but rare, like the appetizer of fried whitebait, a plate of whole (headless) little bait-sized fried fish (really smelts), cooked quickly and served crisp and hot with nothing more than a cheesecloth-dressed lemon. You eat them out of hand like french fries, just sliding your teeth down the backbone so the salty, barely fishy flesh slides off into your mouth. (After the first few, you skip the slide and just bite the thing through, soft little bones and all adding to the crunch of the crust.) The delight of the dish was in its immediacy; this is the way you eat fish sitting in a seaside cafe, just whatever's available, fried a minute earlier and rushed to the table still sizzling. And there's panzanella, a salad not served often enough, though it's not exactly exotic--it's a thrifty country dish of toasted stale bread, tomatoes, cucumber, basil and onions, the juice soaking into the bread so it softens slightly as you eat it. My only complaint was that these summery flavors were not at their best cold. Like most tomato salads, this one should have been served at room temperature so the full bouquet filled your face--the refrigerated chill subdued the taste. With the appetizers we ate the thin, crackling rounds of straw-gold foccacia, not the thick pizza-dough-like bread served at most places, but hot disks as thin as lahvosh, with big blistered bubbles rising under the dusting of parmesan and rosemary.

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