By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
It's doubtful Mi Piaci--kin to Salve! and likewise founded by visionary restaurateurs Phil and Janet Cobb--will be removed from Dallas by some legalistic eruption. If this restaurant slips off the pavement, it will be worn away, as if by slow, tortuous drips of water.
The drops are few but conspicuous. The bar is almost barren during weekday happy hours, as is the dining room as the evening progresses. The cushions on the barstools have untended and prominent open wounds, exposing the stuffing through frayed fabric edges. Walls on one side of the dining room are scarred with deep dirty grooves, from chair backs, presumably.
And then there is the chef shuffling. The executive chef post is behaving like the Soviet Union's general secretary slot in the 1980s (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev in just three years). Over the past couple of years, Todd Nelson, Steve Kelly, Joel Harloff and Tim Penn (executive chef in 1996) held the post before Michael Marshall, formerly of the Riviera before it closed and reopened, assumed it.
That Mi Piaci is a classic goes without saying. Through the years it has collected critical acclaim not only from local publications, but from national rags with gloss--Gourmet, Esquire, Town and Country, Food & Wine. The all-Italian wine list has garnered recognition from The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines.
But does the food still "please" as the moniker calls out? (Mi Piaci means "you're pleasing to me" in the language of opera.) Yes, with a little no. Much of the food is as tight, tasty and beautiful as you'd expect from a restaurant flaunting a Northern Italian sensibility. Prosciutto de Parma arrives as overlapping sheets, with parcels across the surface ranging in hue from deep rose to faded peach, separated by needle-thin white veins of fat. Instead of smooth, the sheets are bumpy, draping slices of cantaloupe and plumb tucked underneath. This cured ham is satiny, and too large to fold, pierce and gather with fork tines to install between the lips. Yet this is not a problem, because while this sultry ham is firm and dense, it is tender enough to cut with a fork. Sea and mountain winds around Parma in Northern Italy are said to provide the distinctive flavor and delicacy of this ham. Once it passes the lips, the fabric is pleasantly chewy with pronounced sweetness cut off at the knees by a lurking salt bite--silk from a sow's ear.
Classic reruns like the insalata alla caprese carry the same tone. Halved slices of alternating red and yellow tomato are draped with creamy cuttings of buffalo mozzarella, all doused with olive oil and arranged on an oval plate with meticulous precision. The tomatoes were firm but juicy--barely skirting mealy-ness--and they lacked richness. Three flawless basil leaves (no blemishes or brown edges) were pressed into the center, a compressed piece of style.
But does Mi Piaci still have good spud sense? Gnocchi is the classic potato dumpling that, more often than not in Dallas, is a tortured facsimile of Dow implants or some kind of swamp mush. Not here. These pillows are firm and delicate with just enough give and that slight tuber grip in the mouth. They bump an already lumpy wild boar ragout with crimini mushrooms and scraps of wilted baby spinach. Delete the near-perfect gnocchi, and the dish still startles, on account of its richness and broad range of flavors. Pieces of boar are tender and chewy with a dash of rusticity (smoky earth) on the finish--a mind-expanding treatment.
Where there's boar, there's beef. Thick beef tenderloin, rose red in the center, is silky and rich, melting easily in the trap. It's perched on a semolina tort soaking in a gorgonzola sangiovese sauce, a slinky foil to the rich sweetness of the beef. Italians (like the Chinese) have a fondness for rapini, vegetation related to both the cabbage and the turnip. Its pungent stalks are studded with tiny buds that resemble broccoli florets. The stalks are gently assembled over the thick fillet's flat top, giving it a deep rich green, rocking the meat with its pungency.
But it's the wine that brings everything to a sweet pitch. The list is logical, broken down into whites and reds and further diced into regions--Piedmont, Umbria, Tuscany, Veneto. Italian wine is pure sex. It would be unthinkably clumsy to toss around terms like Brix, titratable acidity, pH, ethanol levels or road tar when discussing vino from the boot. That'd be like discussing hormone levels and essential blood flow physiology before locking lips with a romantic interest. Italian wine goes straight for the groin, permitting unnecessary technical discussions only after you catch your breath. Mi Piaci has the lot of them: pinot grigio, Barolo, Barbaresco, super Tuscans and Chianti. Perhaps no wine arouses quite like Brunello di Montalcino, crafted from a variant of the sangiovese grape. Mi Piaci has several, ranging from roughly $85 to $150 and beyond. But you can also capture that silky sensuality for much less. Morellino di Scansano was nearly as smooth and complex at $47--a monkfish to Brunello's lobster.