Do It Yourself
Sandra Lee was the oldest of five siblings and, according to her Web site, helped fashion quality meals for her family on their welfare budget. Thus began her Semi-Homemade empire of cookbooks, life and style guides, Food Network show Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee and various other projects that laud her rule of "70 percent ready-made products with 30 percent fresh and creative touches." Fine, good. No issue with Sandra Lee. The "over-extended homemaker"—as she sees her audience—needs a few good ideas to avoid tearing out the ol' highlights. A problem does arise, however, with any restaurant serving food that could have come from Lee's recipes. People don't normally make reservations for cuisine de housewife.
Michael Mark's Trattoria suffers first from horrible location. It's nestled in the ass end of the II Creeks Shopping Center in Richardson's Canyon Creek (an area not unfamiliar to stay-at-home moms). If the sandwich board isn't out on the sidewalk along Custer Parkway, the restaurant is easy to miss. If you find it, though, you'll be greeted by employees who offer sincerity and service that would make any hospitable homemaker proud. Lee would be pleased, though she probably wouldn't support the bowties on the wait staff, undone in an effort at creating a casual vibe, which comes across a little confusing.
Unfortunately for the trattoria, the service is the highlight of the dining experience. Once the orders are placed, betting folks might wager that cans are opened and bits are strained and maybe some vacuum-sealed packages are cut open. Judging solely by the tastes of the food, MMT's kitchen might well look more like a pantry and a kitchenette.
Chelsea's Tuscan nachos win the Least Likely to Contain Preservatives Award. Slightly sweet pasta chips were piled with sliced pepperoncinis, white beans, red onion, melted Gouda and Parmesan, marinara and a drizzle of pesto lacking enough basil. The flavor profile was pert and invigorating with credit going primarily to the pepperoncinis. The cheese wasn't heavy, and grease was minimal. The beans, however, proved a bit mealy and the pasta chips varied between satisfyingly crisp and too hard.
The artichoke dip was average. Lee might jazz it up with some crab or a few breadcrumbs. And enough with the pasta chips. If tables are using their store-bought bread to eat the dip, reserve the chips for the nachos and call it a day.
The crab cakes with "Italian" remoulade were easily mom-made. They were small with no discernible lumps of actual crabmeat, and while they appeared to be browned, they were actually quite soft to the tine. The remoulade was poured on in excess and there wasn't a thing Italian about it (if there was an anchovy or caper pureed into it, neither was evident).
The trattoria and Sandra Lee both use breadcrumbs to top their Italian mac and cheese, but the differences in the rest of their recipes is that Lee uses home kitchen staple Kraft Macaroni and Cheese while MMT uses what tastes like some sort of powder or canned cheese sauce to cover the shells and completely unnecessary chicken strips. It may in fact be some form of real cheese, but after 25 minutes the sauce at the bottom of the dish had the same consistency cold as it did when it was tongue-scaldingly hot. Very suspicious. Stay at home and go with Lee on this one.
The baked ziti de trattoria was Lee-inspired—no homemade sausage here. Thin marinara, with some canned tomatoes and bell peppers added, covered nicely al dente ziti.
Spaghetti carbonara proved to be a rich, over-sauced disaster. Ham cubes (think: salad bar) replaced traditional pancetta, and burnt bacon bits raised the salt level far beyond bearable. The sauce was called "Mona Lesa" sauce but was basic Alfredo, as parenthetically noted in the mix-and-match pasta and sauce area of the menu. After comparing take-home portions of the trattoria's carbonara to a Healthy Choice frozen chicken carbonara meal from the supermarket, two friends and I preferred the latter. Add some snap frozen peas and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to that and you might have a less salty, more traditional flavor, Semi-Homemade-style.
The Michael Mark barbecue pizza compared unfavorably with incarnations from the freezer section or at Baker Bros. Of all pizza crust sins, the worst are soggy or undercooked dough. Thanks to a deluge of the barbecue sauce (these people love the ladle) that harkened back to that famed Masterpiece of KC, the crust was flaccid and still doughy in the center. There was no structure, no air, no crunch until the outer edge. The caramelized onions were vapid and dissolved without smokiness or sweetness. And then came the chicken slices. When two dining companions question the validity of the term "chicken breast" there's something very wrong happening. Now, the practice of tenderizing meat by pounding as opposed to marinating it is common, but when a piece of poultry flakes apart like particle board, one suspects the chicken breasts are not fresh from Sam the Butcher but shipped frozen from the reconstituted breast fillet plant. If the proprietors claim fresh whole chicken breasts, consider this a heart-felt suggestion for a new supplier.
The breast issue was only amplified by the full-portion poultry of the chicken cappazetti, yet another entrée that would have been better off left at home. See, Lee would most likely add capers, wine, butter and lemon juice to a mixed vegetable medley and toss it with frozen shrimp. She'd whip up some instant mashed potatoes, sauté a chicken breast and pile everything together. For an after-work meal, it'd be right on. Then again, she'd use that Le Cordon Bleu degree to take care that the squash was actually cooked through, there were more than two capers in the sauce and the shrimp were at least tooth-tender.
Now, it's hard to muck up a sweet treat, and thankfully, MMT didn't destroy any classics. The tiramisu was a solid effort—light and airy, the ladyfingers soaked through without espresso overkill left on the palate. The zeppole (small, deep fried dough fritters) were brought to the table street-vendor style in a white paper sack, tossed in cinnamon sugar and released onto the plate to be dipped still hot in a smooth, sweet dipping sauce we found tasty but superfluous. The double, double chocolate cake was moist and rich, topped with a perfectly thin layer of smooth cocoa icing. The only disservice here was the freakishly strong raspberry coulis. It overwhelmed everything in its path, but fortunately it was drizzled on.
You don't go to a restaurant to learn you can create the same, if not better, meals at home after watching a Food Network show. A diner shouldn't pay $15 or even $10 for something that comes off canned, zapped or frozen when the point of Italian cuisine is fresh, proud nourishment. At Michael Mark's Trattoria, home-style dishes just don't translate to fare that's steps above Mama's kitchen. Hell, she'd probably give canned tomatoes the stink eye. The menu states, "Mama always said, 'Deliver great food, great service, value, and fun, while making each guest feel special.'" They got the service part right, at least. But one dinner guest said it so perfectly: "What it should say is, 'Mama always said make sure you use half-assed ingredients and cut corners at every pass but still charge the same as you would at a real restaurant.'" 2701 Custer Parkway, Richardson,
469-330-0900. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. $-$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.