Francesco Farris needed a break. After 18 years working at his brother Efisio's side, he was ready to strike out on his own.
"I think I grew up," he told me the other day, after I'd made a few visits to his new little Italian restaurant. "I think it was time to detach."
The pair had come to the States in the late 1980s, leaving the Sardinian family restaurant they'd grown up in. They opened Arcodoro & Pomodoro, sister restaurants closely tethered, and eventually combined them as they jumped from location to location. But the latest version, at the Crescent, is decidedly Francesco-free. He left in 2009, for reasons he wouldn't explain.
Zio Cecio Cucina Italiana
Zio Cecio Cucina Italiana
Spaghetti vongole $19.50
Seafood ravioli $19.50
Potato ravioli $15.50
Spaghetti carbonara $14.50
Spicy octopus $12.50
Beef carpaccio $8.50
Various desserts $8.50
But Farris didn't swan dive into his next food venture immediately. He wanted to take his time. He leveraged relationships back home — his father and grandfather were in the marble and granite business — to get a job with the Marazzi Tile Co. His family sold stone in Italy, and Francesco sold beautiful Italian tile in America. But even the finest tile wasn't enough to keep the chef's attention. He wanted to cook, but only if he could find the perfect space.
It took two years to settle on the tiny white house on Lovers Lane that used to be home to Patry's Bistro and Wine Bar. That little French restaurant, known for refined but relaxed cuisine, had failed after three short years of existence, but its death didn't deter Farris. The building was ripe for renovation, and he could finally design the restaurant exactly how he wanted.
If the place was cursed, Farris did everything he could to exorcise the demons. Only a wall or two from the original structure remain. An open floor plan was mandatory.
"I want to see the people, touch the people and hear the people," he said, describing his vision for the open kitchen that's tucked in the back corner of his dining room.
Farris built a new roof and replaced kitchen equipment. He built a modest wine room of wood and glass and filled it with Italian and domestic wines. He painted the new walls rusty orange and hung pictures from the Old World on the wall. In one, an old man weaves a wicker basket, in another a man pulls from a nearly spent cigar. And of course there's tile. It lines the bar, floors and bathrooms. A mosaic above the entrance to the back kitchen mimics the restaurant's logo: a fat and happy chef wearing a green mushroom chef's hat and riding a massive tomato.
The heart of the space is the oak-fired oven that casts a flickering amber glow. It's more than just a pizza oven; it's the soul of the kitchen. In the mornings, when the oven is cooler, the staff bakes the house-made breadsticks that garnish many plates: long crunchy snacks, some flecked with rosemary, others tinged gray with squid ink, all dimpled with the fingerprints of the staff like a child's Play-Doh snake.
In the evenings, suckling pigs and whole, salt-crusted fish roast beside the hot embers. If the house were smaller, you could picture the hills of Sardinia rolling in the background, but then the parking lot and valet drivers would shatter the dream. Thankfully for Dallas, the seafood-driven fare of the far-off Italian island is just a short drive away. Though, while you don't need a plane ticket to get here, you're still gonna pay.
The salt-crusted fish, for example, serves two and will set you back $62 — expensive for a simple preparation, no matter how well it's executed. While mine tasted fresh, the waiters who served it tableside mangled the dish. Bones are always a hazard when eating whole fish, and worth it for the succulence they impart, but my plate hid too many land mines. Why did I get two small dark-skinned fish when the menu promised one big red snapper?
Farris told me the restaurant ran out of snapper the night of my visit, so he substituted two smaller branzino — a fair switcheroo, sure, but a table should be alerted to such a significant change before the kitchen commits to it.
A steak, sliced for sharing, also underwhelmed. The potatoes that shared the plate were garlicky, and a supporting sauce tasted like a sweet demi-glace. The steak itself was lifeless — but managed to tack another $31 to my bill.
After two lackluster mains, we changed our tack and focused on appetizers and pastas that turned out to be much better dishes. They were friendlier to the wallet, too.
Take that salty baby octopus that swam in a sea of black squid ink on a bed of house-made orzo. The tri-colored pasta was small, delicate and perfectly irregular, and only set us back $13. If chomping on whole cephalopods isn't your style, consider the spicy version instead. Here, slivers of larger octopus swam in an ocean of spicy tomato sauce. The only flaw is that the dish needed more of those tender, delicious tentacles. I was sad when they were gone. And then I ate the sauce anyway.
Pastas pleased across the board, and none crossed the $20 mark. While the pancetta in the spaghetti carbonara could have been crispier (or better yet, replaced with guanciale), the sauce was light and the cheese and egg yolk were understated. If anyone has figured out how to make this traditionally heavy dish at least taste healthy, it's Farris.
Spaghetti vongole, little manila clams with tomatoes over squid ink pasta, was perfection. And ordering the fettuccine Bolognese delivered a rich and hearty tomato-driven dish. Ravioli was excellent on both counts. Try the seafood and cheese with a pistachio cream sauce, or potato laced with mint covered in rich red — both pass.
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Each of the carpaccios delivered exactly what anyone should expect of Italian food: clean, simple cooking — if you call carpaccio cooking. Pounding maybe. Thin wisps of beef draped the plate like wet velvet, and took well to a dressing of lemon, capers and shaved curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
A scallop version was just as good. Maybe better. The shellfish were a windowpane — opaque glass as a backdrop to onions with little bite, lemon, microgreens and thin slivers of tomato. "What are those pink things?" a tablemate asked. The out-of-season tomatoes were pale and lifeless. And while I'd similarly bash the caprese salad, it would make me a broken record. I'd be playing the same tune all over Dallas till next June.
Dessert was harder to pick on. Even though the red-pepper gelato was the furthest thing I had encountered from the frozen Italian delicacy (it was more like frozen soft-serve), the flavor was still fun. And ricotta hit with citrus zest was simply dressed in honey, a couple of puffy meringues thrown in for good measure. (The kitchen needs to stay away from the citrus pith; one night the dessert was impossibly bitter.) Tiramisu though, was everything a dessert should be, with a light, delicate texture and not-too-sweet flavor.
The sugar high, however, lasted until the check hit the rustic wood table. Dinner for four on my second visit was dangerously close to the $200 mark — without tax, tip or booze. Not astronomical, but hardly economical, considering the missteps. (The salt-crusted fish accounted for a large portion of that bill.) Next time I'll focus on the pizza, pasta and smaller dishes. And there should be a next time — Zio Cecio still has some kinks to work out, but it's worth another visit.