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Salve! proves Dallas can do Italian

There's a guy in San Francisco named John Cunin who was the longtime maître d' at a place called Masa's before he decided to open his own place in 1990 called the Cypress Club. The Cypress Club was (and still is, I suppose) one of those see-and-be-seen places. People like Johnny Depp eat there. So does a cadre of well-heeled suburbanites and their assortment of trophy spouses and paramours. A "San Francisco brasserie," the Cypress Club's decor is odd, with an interior described in one Bay City rag as phantasmagoric. It's also been described as a parody of an ancient temple and a futuristic space-war backdrop. To me it just looked drenched -- dripping with a rippling façade of the type that fills the claustrophobic with fear. What I remember most about the Cypress Club are the lighting fixtures implanted in the ceiling -- perfect replicas of the handiwork crafted daily by Dallas' fleet of cosmetic surgeons.

Seeking to replicate his Cypress success, Cunin opened another spot, a Spartan thing with a brief menu, in San Francisco's Castro District. Only this one he didn't give a name. This made it a bitch to find if you didn't know where it was, since even directory assistance couldn't track it down without a moniker. (It was later tagged with its address, 2223 Market, after Cunin ran a contest among his patrons offering a $1,000 house account for the best name.) The restaurant became a no-name wonder, a draw because, one suspects, it's hip to know of and nosh at a spot your neighbor can't find.

Salve! Ristorante, Phil and Janet Cobb's Mi Piaci sibling on McKinney Avenue, has a similar problem that could potentially turn into a similar drawing card, though not because it lacks a name. Salve! -- Italian for "welcome good friend" -- is a cool name, and it's rendered in a stylish sign. But the building housing the restaurant, right smack in front of Trammell Crow's new 2100 McKinney Ave. high-rise office development, looks like a bank branch, or maybe a clinic where trophy wives go to get a chest that looks like the Cypress Club's ceiling. Camouflaged in Dallas professional high-rise duds, Salve! doesn't look like a restaurant. Even the sign is hard to spot. "We're very aware of that. Painfully aware," laments Janet Cobb. "But the building had to meet the criteria of the office building behind it." Plus, Salve!'s proximity to the street limited the size of its sign under city regulations.

A collection of painted plates lines a wall at Salve!, but the real plate art comes from the kitchen.
Tracy Powell
A collection of painted plates lines a wall at Salve!, but the real plate art comes from the kitchen.

Details

Lunch:
Monday-Friday
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Dinner:
Sunday
5:30-10 p.m.
Monday-Thursday
5:30-10:30 p.m.
Friday & Saturday:
5:30-11 p.m.

$$$

2120 McKinney Ave.,

(214) 220-0070

But the Cobbs could easily strip the puny sign off the building and let word-of-mouth and pilferage of its cool paper hand towels in the bathroom do the restaurant's marketing, because Salve! is dazzling in a way that precious few restaurants in Dallas are (including Mi Piaci). Its sparkle goes beyond the high-profile pros -- former Mansion maître d' Wayne Broadwell, onetime Mansion chef Kevin Thomas Ascolese, former Zodiac Room Executive Chef Sharon Hage -- pulling Salve!'s levers. Something extraordinary has jelled inside this bank-branch bunker that serves quick-lunch sandwiches, pizzas -- even balsamic-glazed baby chicken -- in the bar.

The risotto bears this out, pricey though it is. Risotto al Barolo ($17) is delivered to the table in a saucepan and is spooned from its depths onto a frosted, rippled yellow plate. The server returns to the table with a smoked-glass bottle and splashes the rice and arugula in a little Marchesi di Barolo, a noble red wine from Italy's Piedmont district. This was an unexpected surprise because, while I often splash red wine on my meals, it's usually caused by klutziness. Anyway, this risotto, richened with beef marrow, was astonishing: creamy but firm and resilient; hearty, with a complex confluence of flavors.

The list from which that Barolo is plucked is a good piece of work as well. Composed exclusively of Italian bottlings, Salve!'s wine list is organized by region: Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, and so on. Each wine has a brief flavor descriptor (a few suggestions for food pairings would be welcome) above the price. And it's hard to see how you can go wrong, even at the lower end of the scale. The 1997 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti ($32)(Barbera is a widely planted grape also from Piedmont, this one grown around the city of Asti) was deliciously bright, smooth, and loaded with clean, silky berry flavors edged with a bit of tannic grip. But the sommelier was a little rusty. After presenting the label and pouring a splash for me to taste in that way that sommeliers do, he went around the table filling the glasses and skipped me, leaving me to savor the tasting dribbles before pouring my own reinforcements.

But that's OK. There is much other stuff to savor while the sommelier figures out protocol. There's the insalata di carciofio e finocchio ($7), which, once translated, turns out to be a salad with arugula, shaved artichoke, and fennel doused with lemon and extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. It's a magnificently simple blending that's crisp, refreshing, and articulate.

Affettati misti ($9) is a feast for the delicate carnivore with careful little scraps of house-cured salami (with a ripe, gamy taste that made it seem better than something pilfered from a sub), lively pepperoni, tasty bresaola (salted, aged beef), and mortadella (larded pork sausage). The flesh was flared up with fresh herbed olives that gave the meaty plate some briskness. Prosciutto Galloni ($9), slices of meat with cipolline onions, slips. The flesh was gray, indicating it may have been sliced hours (or days) before it was served.

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