A tentative seduction

Coco Pazzo's designs on Dallas are off to a lukewarm start

For several years, I have engaged in a one-way, anonymous (he knows my words, I know his food) correspondence with eccentric Dallas restaurateur Gene Street. That is, Gene, like my mother, mails me stuff he thinks I should read. For instance, a few months ago, I received a copy of a press biography of Pino Luongo. A sentence from Luongo's autobiographical cookbook, A Tuscan in the Kitchen was circled: "About the ritual of making risotto, 'the dish of romance,' he writes: 'It can be like seducing a woman. She doesn't know you and you need to work things out with her slowly--meeting, flirting, getting to know each other, and wanting each other. If you rush it's never good.'" On an accompanying post-it note, Gene had scrawled, "How will this fly in Dallas?"

Good question, Gene. A pair of Luongo's Coco Pazzo restaurants recently opened in Dallas in a pair of locations we've become accustomed to ignoring. But we sure don't seem to be rushing into this relationship.

Luongo began his career backwards--his first big hit was Sapore di Mare, a restaurant that became the darling of the Hamptons. Later he moved into Manhattan to open (the slightly gimmicky) Le Madri, Il Toscanaccio, and a couple of Coco Pazzos. Evidently the latter concept is the one he decided had "legs"--now there's a Coco Pazzo in Chicago and one in L.A. Luongo engaged in a bidding war with Dallasite Jack Knox (owner of Patrizio and Cafe Pacific) for the remains of the sinking Sfuzzi chain. Luongo won, and that accounts for our local Coco Pazzos, one on McKinney and one on a particularly difficult corner in Addison.

Location Info

Map

Matt's Rancho Martinez

1904 Skillman St.
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Coco Pazzo means "crazy cook" in Italian. I don't know what the Italian for "crazy restaurateur" is. And it's hard to say yet whether Coco Pazzo will "fly" in Dallas. Coco's style of cuisine could be described as idiosyncratic Tuscan, and supposedly, like Sfuzzi, each restaurant's menu will be the same--only different.

The basic menu features Luongo's variations of Tuscan classics and a few of each local chef de cucina's own inventions. This allows the diner to feel he is eating in a chef-run, gourmet establishment, and allows the owner the tighter control you must have when you're operating a chain. So Coco Pazzo's chefs may be crazy, but the food is not where it shows.

Inside, every Sfuzzi surface has been covered, lacquered, whitewashed, painted in shades of pale. There's a faint and inexplicable nautical expression to things--the crisp blue and yellow borders on the plates, the blue-legged chairs--and the overall effect is a contemporary coolness that's slick and elegant, but not exactly welcoming.

Service, though, was not as smooth as the decor. We met a parade of waiters--one had the menus, another took the wine order, several guys were bussing, another served and presented our food, and then we had a whole new relationship with the fellow who brought us dessert. And the pace was unpolished; we felt pressured to order food that took too long to arrive.

Bread--baked, of course, in wood-burning ovens--was promising: a salty foccacia rectangle, a chewy slice seasoned with piney rosemary, and a sesame-sprinkled soft loaf, served with little dishes of strong green olive oil for dipping. At dinner, we were presented with complimentary bruschetta, more like the real thing than the bread pizzas usually served by this name. The bread was actually grilled, then topped with a cool (but not cold) mixture of diced tomatoes and basil.

One antipasta plate alternated pie-shaped wedges of portabello mushroom with triangles of lovely creamy polenta, the polenta better than the portabello, all sauced with a too-salty reduction. Another ingenious appetizer--I think this is what Luongo means by "crazy"--is a twist on classic vitello tonnato, here a carpaccio of barely warm pale pink and gray veal slices, lapped with a sauce of pureed tuna served on wild greens, the smooth tuna lending the same aromatic piquancy to the greens that anchovies provide for Caesar. Dallas diners will recognize and welcome back the salad of shaved parmesan with slivered fresh artichokes they remember from Piccola Cucina. It's just as piquant and refreshing as you remember, but the mushroom salad, an unrecognizable dice of dark mushrooms on more greens, was disappointingly pedestrian.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina, one of the classic dishes of Florence, is actually no more than meat and potatoes, Italian style. Here it's a porterhouse, the most luxurious cut of steak, seldom seen because of its extravagance (unnecessary when most diners are content with a T-bone). Twenty-two ounces of meat, rubbed with "Italian herbs" and olive oil, grilled briefly then finished in the oven, it's the most expensive thing on the menu, recommended for two. It's hard to cook a cut like this, because the tenderloin cooks before the strip; but then, if you can't pull it off, don't put it on the menu. Ours, ordered for one, was mostly overcooked--there was enough meat for two, enough rare meat for one.

Potatoes, little turned and browned bullets, were absolute perfection; a grilled carrot strip, some artichoke, one spear of skinny asparagus, and a pinwheel of onion completed the plate. Seafood fettucine netted an oceanful of seafood and fin fish tangled in a vaguely tomatoey and undistinguished sauce. A pizza margherita, from that wood-burning oven, was flatly disappointing, underbaked and boring, and the outstandingly bland foccacia alla Coco Pazzo we had at lunch, sandwiching too-little robiola cheese with a mere mist of truffle oil, especially so.

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