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Could Daniele Puleo be the man who finally brings good Italian to Dallas? Maybe.
Tom Jenkins

Italian stares at us perpetually, teasing with promise. It draws us with its sassy Latin vibrato and Ferrari-like lust with hints of Fellini-esque expressiveness. But the stare is an empty leer. What you get is Ed Wood warbling Lou Reed while tooling down the road in a Kia Sorrento. Italian beckons, then quickly disappoints. Is it the water, the soil or the ghosts of Ewing Oil that prevent Dallas from getting great Italian? No one knows.

Sure, good Italian restaurants have come and gone, their lifetimes typically measured in months rather than years, but the landscape is mostly dotted with mediocrity ending in vowels.

Enter Daniele Osteria. It's too early to tell where on the landscape this specimen will fall, but the underpinnings appear promising. For one, pasta is al dente. Pasta mush is all too often the most conspicuous Italian tar pit. Spinach fettuccine in meat sauce has firm green ribbons in a simple rich sauce that spreads through the mouth smoothly, like smoke.

Carpaccio is odd, though. Discs of "cured beef," looking suspiciously like salami sliced from a ruddy log spotted with white dots of Lipitor bait, are arranged in a circle around a plate. In the center is a pinch of deep green arugula fluff. The meat is intense and chewy, not light and lacy (and raw) and topped with Parmesan shavings like typical carpaccio renditions. It's good, but why label a submarine staple "carpaccio"?

The carpaccio highlighted another distraction: the dishes. They're bright and busy instead of neutral, flaunting a mosaic of orange, blue, green and yellow--if the eyes are working correctly in the amber din, that is. Along the rim of the plates and bowls is scrawled "Daniele." Nice touch, but it makes it difficult to absorb the menu's visual artistry--if it exists.

Caponata Palermitana may have it. This is a ratatouie, a simple dish. In Provence it's known as "ratatouille," a peasant conglomerate of eggplant, tomato, onion, bell pepper, zucchini, garlic and herbs all simmered in olive oil. Here it's celery, olives, capers, onion and tomato sauce that breathe life into the eggplant. Three endive leaves are jammed into the base of the cool mound. Push near the heart of the hump, lift, and a good amount of pulp tumbles into the elongated endive leaf bowl. Bite into it and contrast elbows its way onto the palate. Endive is crisp and juicy. The eggplant-caper-olive-onion-celery mash is not. And herein lies the dish's primary flaw: There are not enough endive leaves to perpetuate the recipe's most endearing characteristic. It wouldn't take much (just two more leaves) to fully frame and capture the mound--if you could see the remaining eggplant-olive-caper pulp, that is. The salad is camouflaged against the colorful bowl, so you can't tell if you're attempting to scoop ratatouie or mosaic chatter.

Yet the stuff is exhilarating: The eggplant is firm and meaty instead of mushy, as if someone flipped off a switch halfway through a Gerber transformation. Caper and olive brine supply the bulk of the electricity, while the tomato sauce tosses in some background sparks. This is bare-bones simplicity at its most provocative.

Or it would be, if other things didn't steal the nudity limelight. The best way not to muck up salmon is to get the best piece of fish you can lay your hands on and then leave it the hell alone. This is what the salmone e spinaci does. Supple green leaves carpet a small platter. You figure something clever has been done to them. No self-respecting chef could leave raw spinach unpestered. You would be wrong. It's nothing but plain leaves in olive oil. There isn't even any sassy kosher grit from the Dead Sea.

The salmon itself is topped with nothing--nothing--but salmoriglio. Salmoriglio is billed as Sicily's simplest fish sauce. How simple? Take a look at this typical recipe.

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup hot water

Juice of 2 lemons

Pinch of salt

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 teaspoon oregano

A parenthetic note accompanies this formula: "Purists insist that it must be sea water, but most people use ordinary water." Do "most people" also use ordinary garlic, or do they succumb to the call of purists and crush only cloves grown in volcanic pumice from Pompeii? Damn the purists, because ordinariness is what makes this dish so compelling: The sauce is nothing more than culinary sweat. And as we all know, when the body is right, the sweat is sweet enough to lick. The salmon has a slightly crisp skin with tender flakes below. Drive the fork through the pink layers and steam curls spring from the deep. No mush. No dry warpage.

This miracle of minimalism is repeated with squid and citrus. A loose cluster of clipped orange segments is shuffled off to the side of the plate to fester in its juices. The center of the plate is a series of spokes: squid bodices grilled and rubbed down in olive oil and lemon. Orange is slightly chilled; squid tubes are hot... hot. The meat cleaves easily as the fork sinks into the dirty bronze grill gauze surrounding these milky body socks. Contrasts bubble: clean orange acids jabbing at meat moist with marine sweat; dismembered citrus pressing against whole bodies.

Daniele was founded by chef Daniele Puleo, a refugee from L.A. (a manager of Rex II Ristorante) who opened his namesake in the former Aims Academy School of Culinary Arts space on Oak Lawn Avenue. Like much of the food, the décor is simple. Glass tube lighting fixtures are fastened to sconces and chandeliers woven with looping metal strands. Walls are textured and faux-finished in praline browns, while plush green curtains fill portals notched out of the wall separating the bar from the dining room. Wooden racks hold wine bottles in slots.

But the restaurant doesn't yet have a firm footing. Service is tentative instead of poised and efficient, resorting to fawning politeness to compensate. Despite warm, earthy colors, the room lacks a distinct coziness--elements that are simple to upgrade.

Menu slippage ensues as well. Orange roughy Mediterranea is essentially a flat, mushy piece of fish cajoled into respectability with a beautiful sauce composed of sautéed tomatoes, white wine, onions, capers and olives.

Sliced baby artichoke salad is difficult to grasp--literally. Artichoke petals are so insufficiently treated with either heat or marinade that their relentless woody pith cancels the culinary merits of its dish mates: mushrooms, shaved Parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice.

Lamb chops have all of the markings of successful carnivore hussies. They're wet, tender and plump. They glisten with sassy balsamic tartness. They drool seductive juices when pressed. Yet they're bland. The meat is tone deaf to lamb richness. The seasoning doesn't pick up the slack. Technically, there's nothing wrong with these chops. They don't suffer from rude gaminess or the livery twitches of age. They simply lie there, indulging in competency.

These are the few derailments. The rest moves on with firm traction. Caprese in foglia radicchio is a thing of beauty. Radicchio leaves fold themselves into peonies, a wreath of purple cups conspicuously sown with ripples. Slices of mozzarella and cherry tomatoes fill the cups. Firm radicchio bite supplants the typical licorice basil sting, kicking it pegs above the commonplace.

Gnocchi is glorious. Firm, tender dumplings with a tacky veneer grow silky as the jaw crushes them into mash. The ripe sting of Gorgonzola pungency keeps them from fading into obscurity, leaving a firm mark on the palate.

Time will tell if Daniele can do the same. 3300 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-443-9434. Open daily 5:30-10 p.m. $$-$$$

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D'Carlo - Closed

3300 Oak Lawn Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219


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