Rawhide Italian

Antonio Ristorante revels in successful simplicity

A few dishes barely hover above uninspiring territory as well. The Caesar salad, splashed with a paucity of its underwhelming dressing, was simply adequate. And the way gamberi alla aglio con pasta--sauteed shrimp over pasta--is cast in menu lingo, you would think the dish is steeped in a simple, clean white wine sauce. Instead, the ingredients struggle in a plodding, viscous medium made from fish stock thickened with a roux (flour and butter). Plus, the shrimp, though strikingly sweet, were shy on succulence.

But the heightened tone was recaptured with pork chop alla campagna, a pair of grilled pork chops with rosemary and garlic. Avona roasts a pork loin to medium-rare and lets it cool before he cuts and grills chops to order. This settles the meat flavors while it seals in moisture. And the process works beautifully: the thick, slightly pink chops were juicy and tender, while the meat deftly absorbed the seasonings.

Originally from Southern Venice on the Adriatic Sea, Cola has made Dallas his home for the past 25 years. "Let me tell you," he says. "I could be very easily a spaghetti cowboy." No doubt one with a fistful of herbs.

Puff's claims to "build the best burger you ever tasted." And a press release lists the high-quality construction materials to prove it: a half-pound of freshly ground chuck; a custom-made toasted bun from Massimo's Italian Bakery; and an on-location hickory-smoking process. Everything is served in papered pie tins.

But if these are the ingredients of a great dining structure, how come everything feels like warped dry-wall and pressboard studs?

A clue that Puff's boasting is all blather is a burger ordered medium-rare on one visit. The limp, concave patty came with one edge firmly in the pink, while the middle and the opposite edge were well-done gray. Does Puff's freeze its building materials?

Flavor and texture were on the flimsy side as well. The meat is gristly and rubbery and lacks rich meat flavor, save for a cheap hint of smoke. Buns are chewy, bland, and shapeless. The pickle slices are discolored and mottled.

Sides have the flavor, texture, and appearance of rippled caulk beads. Onion rings were chalky, oily, and bland, while thin "shoestring cut" fries were cold, limp, and mushy--like a tangle of fish bait.

The fried shrimp was a little better than the burgers. The moist, curvy crustaceans actually displayed some sweetness and succulence, while the fried coating, though a little shy on flavor, was crispy.

The Mexican chef salad held promise, though it quickly fell into the mediocrity apparent in the rest of the menu. Generous chicken pieces, though juicy, were bludgeoned with hickory smog. Plus, the lettuce was limp and browning, while the tasty pintos touted on the menu numbered five. A paltry sprinkling of cheese and a single runt tomato wedge underscored the stingy squalor of this chef clutter fenced in by a greasy flour tortilla shell.

Puff's is the reincarnation of Cardinal Puff's, a longtime SMU hangout on Greenville Avenue and Yale that sputtered a few years ago because of a dispute between owner John Ahern and his landlord. This Preston Center reanimation is decked like an uppity greasy spoon. Walls are cluttered with battered windows and shutters, tables are draped in felt-backed beige vinyl coverings, and booths are dressed in striped fabric with blue vinyl trim.

For a simple grease trap, Puff's turns in an adequate performance. But for a venue boasting the best of anything, one thing's for sure: Puff's shouldn't have inhaled.

Antonio Ristorante, 4985 Addison Circle, (972) 458-1010. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday 4-11 p.m.; and Sunday 4-10 p.m. $$$

Puff's, The Hickory Grill. 6116 Luther Lane, Preston Center, (214) 362-6191. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $-$$

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