Doesn't happen often

The malling of America is a fact. Malls aren't just off-centers for the suburbs; city downtowns are dead, small towns have been shattered by Wal-Marts, and malls are the new middle of modern American communities.

They're not mere shopping centers, they're cultural (such as it is) centers, social centers, recreational centers. They're the late 20th-century town squares, insulated, controlled, patrolled, weather-free, and pretty much free of spontaneity, personality, and idiosyncrasy.

You can take a walk in the mall--regardless of rain, shine, snow, or ozone--go window shopping, go ice skating, see a show, meet people. Sometimes you can have your blood pressure checked, see a rose competition or a watercolor exhibit. There are trees (in containers) and parkless benches where you can rest and watch the other pedestrians, just like the old beret-topped men in Bresson's photographs.

The only problem--especially from my admittedly singular point of view--is that mall culture has pretty much ignored the crucial question of where to eat.

Mall eateries have mostly been the pits--those clusters of walk-up fast-food joints (actually and accurately referred to as "food pits" in the business) that provide picnic tables to park your styrofoam on and a wide variety of fried food to eat. Even La Madeleine's mall outlets offer only cafeteria-style service at their indoor-indoor restaurants.

Restaurants with loftier aspirations have tried to ignore their location as if it were some kind of toilet paper on the shoe of their existence. Piccola Cucina at NorthPark, for instance, has a separate outside entrance--so you can pretend it's not in a mall at all. Uncle Tai's, closed in on itself at Galleria, presents a solid red wall of China to mall-walkers.

Nicola's, across the way from Uncle Tai's at the Galleria, is the first full-service restaurant with good food that fully faces--actually embraces--the fact that it's in a mall.

The restaurant is a shallow, wide space, and one whole wall opens to the mall with plenty of tables and chairs on what would be the sidewalk if there weren't a ceiling overhead. You can see what's happening in the mall from almost every table in Nicola's. It's a modern American mall version of the European sidewalk cafe.

And I think we're going to see more mall restaurants made on this model. After all, Dallas is mad for outdoor dining--we'll choose to eat outside even when the only tables are streetside, even when it's so hot the restaurant has to install sprinklers to keep us from gasping like fishes, even when it's so cold they have to tent the patio and heat it to make the outdoors as comfortable as the indoors. (You see what I'm getting at--even when they have to create their own mall, as it were.)

So what could be better than eating outdoors, indoors? No heat, no cold, no bugs, no wind, no fumes. Plenty of people-watching. No need for Cinzano umbrellas or uncomfortable weather-proof metal or plastic chairs and glasses. No fear your napkin will blow down the street, that the birds will misfire, that a passing truck will slop through a nearby puddle (all hazards experienced in my line of duty).

Inside, Nicola's is a pretty place in a hip, Sfuzzi-inspired sort of way. Its ceiling is painted with clouds and cherubs, the tables are painted in Etruscan colors and antiqued, then laminated to prevent furthering the process. Built-in banquettes are upholstered in soft hues, plates and glasses are fine designs, not institutional.

Our waiter poured out a pool of peppered olive oil into a shallow dish, brought us a basket of chewy bread (unfortunately cold, stored in the fridge, I guess), and presented us with a decent wine list while we read our menus. Antipasti, soups, salads, pizzas, and pastas take up most of the list; wisely, I think, only five "secondi piatti" are offered, again, a nod to the location. If you're eating in a mall, chances are you don't want to take several hours for the leisurely course-after-course progression that makes up the full feature-length Italian meal. You've got shopping to do or a movie to see. We did, anyway.

The thin crusty foccacia was glazed with cheese and sprinkled with needles of rosemary. The pale pink carpaccio looked more like shaved ham on a pile of dry, undressed arugula, but it had a nice flavor, showered with shavings of parmesan. Gamberi, sweet, firm shrimp, were coated in buttery crumbs and served with two piles of cooked spinach and some roasted red pepper strips. A plate of marinated, grilled portabello mushrooms, the whole huge cap sliced like a steak with anchovy slivers over the top, warmed up the cold bread. Salads were a nice mix of various greens, again pre-tossed and refrigerated too long, death to a dish that should be the freshest of all.

Panini de pollo alla griglia was the favorite entree of the table (when you eat with me, it's the rule to bite and pass). Chaste white mozzarella, barely melted with red roasted peppers and slices of moist grilled chicken between crusty pieces of foccacia, made a sandwich you could barely get your mouth around but felt compelled to work at. The kitchen's "lasagnetta" (baked in a wood-burning oven, like the pizzas) changes daily; we were served a sumptuous layering of chicken and spinach leaves with besciamella and cheese, and maybe a touch of nutmeg.

The only disappointing dish was the only main dish we ordered, pollo alla Romana, a chicken quarter semi-boned and breaded too far in advance for its sauteing, the thick crumbed coating damp and wadded, with a sliver of plastic wrap tangled in it to prove its storage. It came over grilled slices of squash and eggplant, with new potato halves.

Desserts were all skippable; best was a chocolate pear torte, the fruit layered over light mousse inside a ladyfinger shell. But there is a gelateria next door (I wish they'd told me before we ordered dessert); it opens to the mall so you can have a scoop as you stroll around--the town.

Nicola's, the Galleria, third level, 788-1177. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Open Sunday 12 a.m.-6 p.m.

Portobella alla Griglia $4.95
Carpaccio di Manzo $6.50
Foccacia Nicola $3.75
Panini de Pollo alla Griglia $6.25
Lasagnetta $8.50
Pollo alla Romana $8.95


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