DiTerras Urban Italian
I always wondered about the wisdom of that bit of advice that urges road-trippers to stop at diners with a bunch of trucks parked outside.
Not that truckers don't know a good plate of hash browns, mind you, but do big-rig jocks really grasp the finer things? There's no reason to assume they prefer a perfect patty of rich ground beef seared medium and bearing dense black scars on the outside to a hunk of heavily seasoned, overcooked meat. Years of diner food may have dulled or twisted their palates in the wrong direction. You never know.
The thought occurs to me during my first visit to DiTerra's Urban Italian. As I sit waiting on my saltimbocca, bartenders and waitstaff from bars all over Lower Greenville stop by to grab some food before the night's drinking rush began.
Yep, bartenders and cocktail waitresses, streaming through the door, one after another, pretty much all of them asking for mushroom toast. According to the truck-stop rule, this should bode well.
And it does. The dish consists of a thick slab of toast spackled with goat cheese before a kind of sauce supreme loaded with mushrooms and garlic is ladled on top. Although the supposedly "wild" fungi resemble flavorless button mushrooms, for the most part, the sauce shows off a sharp, grassy edge that complements the warm, tangy soft cheese. Through this, bittersweet points of charred bread thrust forward. For something so simple, it's a fantastic little starter. In fact, both of the appetizers built around heated bread here are good as long as you ignore overdressed greens and, in the bread salad, some mushy pulp that probably used to be eggplant.
Whatever the pulp is, the salad makes up for it with cubes of bread seared until crunchy. Like croutons, yeah, only compared to the typical crouton, these are the "after" shot in photos comparing Barry Bonds' Pirate and Giant days. In other words, they're big and thoroughly soaked in butter.
This is one juiced-up salad. Not only are pieces of bread so saturated with melted butter they crisp up all the way through, but you also find diced ham hiding amongst the greens. And the kitchen finished off this healthy plate with a fried egg cooked stiff and so studded with pan debris it tasted meaty.
They could serve this at a truck stop.
My waiter on one visit pushes the lamb shank to follow the salad. "Do you have a dog?" he asks, indicating with both hands that I'd be left with a bone as big as Dirk Diggler's. He wasn't exaggerating by much; it's a robust hunk of tender meat, boosted by jus seasoned so cleverly it tastes more like roasted lamb than the shank itself.
I ask for an intermediary dish of gnocchi, but the waiter apparently forgets. He had been out of the industry for 10 years, he tells me later. The recession drove him back into the restaurant world, he adds while I try to point out a dessert with some urgency. Threatening to rain...car top down...but he keeps reminiscing about the job hunt that ended when he walked into DiTerra's. Sure, yeah, things are tough. Whatever. Just don't forget my plum and pineapple clafouti.
DiTerra's that type of place: casual and neighborly. Two women come in early one Friday evening to celebrate a 40th birthday. "You want a couple Jell-O shots?" the bartender, herself pushing 40, asks loudly. Hmm—they get shots, I end up with only a Turkish coffee.
Owner Branden Latshan prepares the thick java herself. "I made a pot of it," she says, apologizing for the delay. It really is threatening to rain, and the driver's side window on my car leaks (I made up the "top down" bit), sputtering water all over electric seat controls. So every minute past dessert is a minute closer to a car fire. But when I mention once having a Turkish coffee martini at Café Izmir, she suddenly gleams. "Maybe I should try to make it," Latshan says. "We should have one."
Free booze? Um, yeah. Looks like it's clearing up, anyway.
"I just put in vodka, right?" she yells from the bar. Sure, but more than that. You want to really taste the alcohol. Hell, open another bottle if you have to. I don't mind.
Did I mention how much I like this place? Branden and her husband Leigh don't act aloof or fake sincere like a lot of restaurateurs, perhaps because DiTerra's is their first venture into food service. She was an architect, and he still works as a photographer. There's a genuine, amateurish enthusiasm behind the waiter's chatter, the owner's impromptu interest in cocktail sampling, in everything about the place—except the décor. That shows a professional's touch.
This easiness, this instant comfort and neighborhood-style chatter help when things break down in the kitchen. And they will, but you'll grant them the benefit of the doubt.
On my final visit the waiter announces a change in the menu. He does this in a low, somber voice—a tone so death-in-the-family serious one would have thought Kent Rathbun had just crossed lobster shooters off the menu at Abacus. For one night only, creamed polenta would replace whatever normally accompanied the lamb.
No, really—damn. The creamed polenta tastes just like Play-Doh, only wetter. Their tomato bisque is rather a one-note, blasé bowl of dullness, broken only by a brilliantly charred slice of bread with fingers of backyard grill smoke that claw through otherwise unbroken monotony. That chicken saltimbocca I waited so patiently for one evening marries flavorless, farm-raised fowl to uninteresting cured ham. It would be entirely forgettable except for buttered spinach on one side and beautiful cakes of fried goat cheese, earthy and tangy at the same time. And the dessert that cost me rain-soaked carpeting and a musty, fungal aroma in my car? (I'm certainly not going to blame the Turkish coffee martini.) It's a dry, chewy plate of dough.
On this last trip to the new Lower Greenville establishment I vow to order that elusive plate of gnocchi. On a previous visit, a waiter warned me away from the potato dumplings, hinting they would be too filling in a three-course spread. Like I said, however, the next waiter skipped over my request, conveniently forgetting. Fine—so I'm destined never to try DiTerra's gnocchi. It may be brilliant or on par with the polenta or saltimbocca. Who knows? And who cares? There's enough good about the place.
DiTerra's sign out front highlights their pizza. They apparently don't want some people to order the dumplings. And Jell-O shots aren't usually considered a high-end cocktail. On the other hand, this is a culinary haven in the heart of a party zone.
So there's a new rule to consider: Eat wherever bartenders order take-away. Or where they serve free experimental cocktails.
DiTerras Urban Italian 1928 Greenville Ave., 214-824-8700. Open 5 -10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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