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Dial Tone Deaf

Rino's claims to be the "real deal." A fake one might taste better.
Peter Calvin

Convenience is the crack of modern culture. It's why the remote is the power metaphor of the tract castle and the mobile phone has displaced indoor plumbing as the critical necessity of existence. It's why cash flows through the air (billions, watch your head) instead of going postal. It's why there's voicemail.

At its northernmost nub, the Dallas North Tollway is the antithesis of convenience. The thoroughfare grinds down to a narrow flue when it gets a whiff of Highway 121, narrowing from three lanes of pay-as-you-go asphalt to one. It's slow and relentless. Middle fingers fly up with near-unanimous reflexiveness, as if they're as essential to contemporary human survival as the shorn pubis. This is where convenience dies, taking hairballs of red raw nerves with it to the grave.

This also is where Rino's Ristorante resides.

Rino's is a crisp, modern-looking end-chink in a strip mall. And like that brutal road flue, it has been forced to embalm convenience. How else to explain its lack of voicemail?

Voicemail is a two-pronged gem if properly deployed. It is not only an informational convenience for customers, it is a cheap branding opportunity for a business. Why would any operator not engage it? Why would any restaurant allow its phone to ring endlessly?

Why would Rino's announce it was changing its hours--throttling Sunday service--with a paper sign on its front door instead of supplementing the change with a voicemail announcement, saving brave destination diners a shuttle through the chute?

Here, the price in gnashed teeth is hard to justify, especially when pizza-to-go is involved. These parchment-thin pies are stamped with sausage slices, mushroom caps and roasted pepper stripes, or tiny shrimp, zucchini slices and dabs of goat cheese, among other things. The pizza droops, slops, drips and spills, scuttling its feeble ballast before it can pass the lips. Cheese is applied with paucity. Tomato sauce is listless.

Yet lingering at Rino's does reveal a few conveniences, though they unfold slowly. Service is polite, attentive and informative, if a little slow--a peculiar dynamic when a dining room has barely enough people to create a din. Wine-by-the-glass pours are generous. Parking is ample. The restroom sinks have soap.

Rino's has pedigree. It was crafted by Rino Brigliadori, who created Modo Mio in North Dallas. It was "built with a singleness of purpose--providing you with the perfect dining experience." Rino's is also self-described as the "Real Deal," offering authentic Italian specialties "unequalled in the Metroplex."

How real is this deal? Carpaccio is chilled slices of raw beef stretched across the plate like frayed shammies. The surface is pebbled with capers; on the side of the plate rests a lemon halved by a serrated cut. Pinches of greens landscape the thin red sheets, quivering with lines of fat. Milky shingles of parmigiano-reggiano are tumbled between the green spaces. But the meat is not lacy and delicate; it's chewy with gristle strings that snag in dental work. It flaunts wisps of that gamy metallic fume that rises in stronger doses from sliced roast beef long-rested in a deli case.

Prosciutto is a rag trade impostor, too. Slumped over the plate, the meat looks like bed sheets hastily flung over a set of loveseats. Three sofa-like wedges of cantaloupe, their tapered ends nuzzling in the center of the plate, are draped with ragged pink sheets irrigated with creamy fat veins. This is a fussless plate, one tossed together then slapped on the table. It's rare to get prosciutto that isn't meticulously pinched or rolled or folded or curled and tucked in a way that telegraphs the respect the kitchen has for this fine cured pork fabric. A taste adds injury to this visual insult. The meat is silky, with that delicate thread of sweet tang that sifts and lifts this pork far above any other pig renderings. Cantaloupe was near perfect, too, sluicing the lips and chin with its floral flush with just the right amount of sweet and cleansing acid to dance with the prosciutto.

There's also calamari fritti, evidence that Rino's is little more than Italian by rote. Sure, tentacle bundles are hidden like prizes among the greasy heaps of wide meat rings, setting this dish apart from the typical squid fry. But it was coated with a chalky, blond sheath of inestimable indifference. The meat was tough and chewy and not at all greaseless. And the dipping sauce was denuded of all zest.

The boast of "Italian specialties unequalled in the Metroplex" tastes like so much hyperbole. With precious few examples, most of them dead like eccolo and Salve! and Mi Piaci before it started serving gray stinky carpaccio with a straight face, Italian in Dallas is roughly all equal--equally mediocre--a suggestion that has become a frustrating cliché. Rino's offers nothing fresh or provocative; nothing you haven't seen before (that isn't done better); nothing to keep you from nodding off. This is a sin for Italian, a cuisine so simple, deep and rich, it takes effort to make it boring.

But the effort is evident. Capellini pomodoro, angel hair pasta with tomatoes, marinara and basil, was undercooked and stiff. The marinara tasted burned, though the bright red of it dispelled the impression.

Gnocchi was little more than a bowl of adhesive, only not as tasty as the stuff from the second grade. It looked like sharp cheddar cheese curds locked into place with varnish; though there was a little redemption in that the tomato cream sauce showed those bumps off in Hooters-hot-pants orange. Behind the mushy, soggy dumplings lurked a temptation to stir them up and test their utility on the back of a wallpaper sheet.

This is the caliber of temptation Rino's elicits. Sure, it can get the mouth to sprinkle. Bite into the veal scaloppini and it's clear this kitchen isn't afraid of lemon. Two bites and it's clear this kitchen is terrified of restraint. The acids--some citrus, others from caper juices and artichoke marinade, still more from white wine--bludgeon the poor veal sheet. The mouth becomes a Pavlov experiment, streams of salivation flowing off the back of the tongue like water-wall rivulets. The oil-slicked sauce knocks it further out of balance.

Rino's tries to wrestle out of its Italian rote by embracing rare tuna with peppercorn crunch, itself a cliché. This dish grips menus with mechanical-claw tenacity, pivoting from anchors that go deep into bedrock. To be relevant, the dish should be flawlessly prepared and nudged out of lethargy with unexpected twists that show the kitchen is thinking instead of pilfering phrases wholesale. Saddle it with a Chianti jus perhaps (instead of the endless Asian doodling) or throw in a duck leg for a surf 'n' turf wink.

Here two thick slivers of fish with tapered tips cross slightly in the center of the plate. Though a deep red rose, the spongy meat was weakly warm; it leaked, and its texture was stringy. A tiny smudge of bright orange pepper coulis--brisk and smooth--was interesting. But its purpose wasn't clear. There wasn't enough of it to drive it as a dipping element.

Rino's doesn't have enough to drive you into its dining room either. But if you're compelled to make the trip, drive ahead before you call.

8100 Dallas Parkway, Plano, 972-731-7900. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$


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