Oh Boyardee!

Tarantino's Italian-American comfort fare is filling but unchallenging

Deep Ellum in bright sunlight can be a downright alarming sight. There's no hint of lurid, neon-streaked discord. Only silent brick structures, pitted by age, and a few lonely cars headed somewhere else.

It looks like a small town in Illinois.

Sitting down for lunch at Tarantino's Deep Ellum, my dinner companion tried to recall something--anything--about our meal the previous week. The atmosphere came to mind instantly. It speaks to that lost sense of old-school comfort lodged somewhere in America's collective consciousness, with worn brick walls, deep colors, white tablecloths and a vintage console turntable oozing the rich and slinky sounds of smooth jazz. Every half-hour or so, the music ends in a blur of quiet static, prompting the proprietor to wander over and flip the vinyl disc. For a moment, that bygone era when lounge singers were cool and obsequious restaurateurs wore crisp aprons and bowed gently to every request seeps into your memory. Quaint neighborhood joints and decent, inexpensive meals, ah, the stuff of nostalgia. But as someone sang in the days when Louis Armstrong and Doris Day were fading into the oblivion of legend, "Something's lost but something's gained in living every day." The past, like the once-thriving downtowns of middle America, cannot be recaptured. We can only hope to reinvent the old days in a pale and imitative form.

Now that's how you enjoy a good, cheap wine.
Tom Jenkins
Now that's how you enjoy a good, cheap wine.

Details

Caesar hummus $7

Spinach, artichoke and mushroom dip $8

Mussels $9

Insalada Tarantino $6

Spaghettini $9 (lunch)

Lasagna $9 (lunch)

Crab $24

Pork $23

Closed Location

And that's the role of Tarantino's Deep Ellum, in more ways than one. The place serves what can best be described as Italian-American classics. These are simple, hearty dishes born in the era when waves of immigrants adapted native favorites to American tastes, the stuff made popular by the likes of Chef Boyardee. Spaghettini, for instance, is a wide bowl of thin pasta strands, alla Napoletana, offered with meatballs (sound familiar?) or sausage. It's a filling dish, granted, but that's about all. Supermarket-quality spaghetti was boiled well past the al dente point. Spicy sausage dominated the characterless and watery tomato sauce.

A slightly sweet, slightly herbal and thoroughly unchallenging lasagna also tugged at our Franco-American memories. Ten minutes after shoving it to the side, we were forced to pick at it again, having already forgotten every little, shall we say, nuance.

Reawakening the simple Italian-American dive, that's one challenge. But thriving in a part of town considered dangerous and gasping for breath? Owner Peter Tarantino has been around the Dallas restaurant business for quite some time now so he should understand the pros and cons associated with location and cuisine. He intends to provide nothing more than hearty comfort fare, and he's slowly developing a crowd. On a Wednesday evening, guests huddled over most of the tables, and our Tuesday lunch visit placed us in a half-filled room (including a boisterous group tucked in a neat alcove). The amiable restaurateur is also convinced restaurants in the area will survive a wave of bad publicity, pointing to the longevity of Monica's, The Green Room, Daddy Jack's and others. We must admit, to his credit, that as long as we've watched people pounding drinks (or other guests) in the various bars of Deep Ellum, we've followed diners filing in and out of the more renowned establishments. Still, it's difficult to believe anyone but neighborhood regulars and longtime acquaintances would trek past Knox-Henderson, Uptown or Stephan Pyles in the Arts District for prosaic comfort food.

Oh, forgot to mention: Tarantino's sits across from the vacant Trees, a few steps down from the former Club Dada, in the space once occupied by Standard 2706. Perhaps his faith is of the "light at the end of the tunnel" or "mission accomplished" variety.

Destination restaurants generally feature some sort of "wow" factor. Here the kitchen barely flexes, and even then results vary. An appetizer of hummus served on crisp romaine and wedges of pasta, seasoned and fried, attacked the senses with a zesty blast of vinegar and citrus. This initial dart was followed by the subtle balance of mashed chickpeas and tahini--but something else lurked in the background, a deep flavor teetering between brine and smoke. Matched to salty pasta chips, the sharper elements subside a bit, allowing earthy, nutty and bitter tastes to emerge. Against a crisp leaf of lettuce the experience shifts, so different layers assert themselves evenly. The spinach, artichoke and wild mushroom dip, listed on earlier menus as "dirty dip," is a mild starter riding on competing sour and musty streams barely stirred by ripples both biting and vegetal. Crab, served as an entrée, tosses a crab cake, a lump of crab salad and minuscule, creepy legs bearing an insignificant nibble of meat on one plate. Only the fried patty stands out, a mix of shellfish and smoked trout lending a unique combination that nudges crab's natural sweetness into a supporting role. The "legs" proved salty, more mushy than firm, and the salad commonplace, although not unpleasant.

And that's where you start to sense the end.

Cutlets of slightly overcooked pork arrived with a pairing of apples and other fruits, roasted garlic and a mound of panna cotta cut with goat cheese. Ideally the latter would cut through some of the cheesecake-like smack of custard. Instead, the entire mélange of fruit and sweets becomes cloying and, eventually, overwhelming.

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