Italian cuisine has had a rough row to hoe in Dallas. Either it's mostly mediocre, or it's so expensive that it's hard to digest more than on a monthly basis without rupturing something valuable. That means there's a culinary niche for the daring to exploit, a ripe market for someone who yearns to dish out digestible food that doesn't cost as much as a car payment.
Perhaps this is what drove Scott Jones into the Dallas-Italian maelstrom. And Jones doesn't even have a background in restaurateuring. He's a musician and filmmaker who has done stints at the Melrose Hotel's Library with pianist Eric Barnes. His sole film credit is as producer of Sordid Lives, a low-budget Texas family "coming out" cult favorite starring Olivia Newton-John.
But something moved him in early 2001 to purchase Café Italia in the Stemmons Towers where the restaurant had been operating since 1991 after opening on Maple Avenue in 1984. After the transaction, Jones opened a Café Italia extension on Lovers Lane (in a space that has at various times been a Harley-Davidson garage, Zeus barbecue and the vegetarian Indian restaurant Saffron) and hired Tom Slatt, a chef who spent time in the trenches of Mi Piaci and Salve! His mandate was to craft "Southern" Italian cuisine. This is not a tap into the spaghetti and meatballs or mostaccioli vein. It's a lunge into Italian cuisine with a Texas or Southern cooking bent, another variation of Tex-Itali, as the breed has been coined here and there. To that end, Slatt has come up with a couple of notable menu mutts, such as Café Lasagna--a kind of chicken-fried lasagna made with deep-fried smoked chicken--and meat loaf with garlic-roasted vegetables and white-truffle mashed potatoes.
Another is Tuscan white bean dip, a kind of chips and salsa distraction dressed in Gucci. The presentation is attractive: A boat of peachy-beige bean substance is surrounded by a golden cluster of pasta chips that look like a genetic collision between Doritos and Ruffles, which really wouldn't breed a freak, as they hail from the same corporate bag. A bit greasy, the fried pasta chips were triangular, rippled and brittle, which means they hold up well under the strain of the bean dip, which was smooth, if a little on the flat side. The menu says this ensemble is served with "pomodoro salsa," a zest enhancer this dish begged for. But we found no evidence of such a relish.
Instead, the relish-type ingredients seemed to be concentrated on the roasted portobello antipasto plate, a collection of pickles and near pickles hemmed in by toast points. The concentrated blots of color--red and gold from the bell pepper, vivid virescence from the olive tampanade, the broad splash of taupe from the mushroom--made the plate resemble an artist's palette. The star of this troupe, Chianti-marinated and grilled portobello mushroom slices, was juicy and tasty. But the slices didn't reflect any contact with a grill at all, neither in stripes of textural stiffness from torrid grill bars, nor in smoke on the palate. Green olive tapenade, the best performer on the plate, was a coarse pinch of briny cleanliness. Hearts of palm were odd: scant slivers shaved from the length of the palm heart, making them look like peelings of bleached kindling, a visual comparison that fits a little too snugly as they had a woody texture.
But this is where Café Italia's visual flourishes abruptly started and finished. Virtually everything else lacked optic flair.
Rigatoni salsiccia was a muddled cacophony of sausage, tomatoes, peppers, portobello and rigatoni tubes; one that was afraid of showing its flesh. Instead of prominent slices of spiced meat, the dish was awash in a mix of pulverized sausage mingled with the other dish's ingredients unceremoniously stirred around the rigatoni tubes. Large slivers of portobello mushroom broke free from the textural monotony, and they retained a faint vinegary taste from their marinade. All told, the flavors worked marginally well, but it was hard to get past the thrown-together display.
Pasta picatta is caught in a similar pickle. Thick slices of chicken breast, capers, supple spinach leaves and al dente penne pasta tubes are scattered and soaked in a soupy puddle of lemon-butter sauce. Again, the flavors are fine, if a little too heavily reliant on the citrus for pizzazz. The chicken is juicy. But what is chicken that looks like orthopedic shoe soles doing in a dish titled "picatta?" Picatta is a very thin escalope of meat. These were crude slabs of poultry pretending to be dressed in Armani.
Perhaps the ugliest dish observed was also a special. It's hard to know generally what a "special" is. The mind runs wild with possibilities. Is it a brief inspired experiment executed with exacting care, or is it--as my companion cynically blurted--an ashbin casserole of yesterday's slow-sellers? The spicy Italian sausage risotto with fingerling potatoes, baby spinach and truffle oil drizzles seemed to fit more in the latter category (there is a "risotto con pollo" on the menu, and, of course, the sausage struggles with the rigatoni). Instead of being neatly arranged in a creamy mound, the risotto--hard, coarse and undercooked--is haplessly scattered around the plate like a double order of breakfast hash. And like the rigatoni, the sausage is invisible, pulverized and concealed among the starch grains. In its stead, those grilled fingerling potato wedges are shoved into the forefront, creating a burst of textural (and culinary) clumsiness of oversized and undercooked starch planks scattered among undercooked starch pellets--a redundancy that weighs heavily on the plumbing. Risotto dishes are at their most elegant when the featured ingredients are prominently and cleanly displayed on top or around the base of a creamy, rich pile of starch that invites the diner to stir and blend to the whim of impulse. Here, the only impulse is to shove those potatoes aside and attempt to pan for sausage remnants.
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Lunch seems a little more up to the Tex-Itali task, if that is actually something that can be discovered and defined. Smoked salmon sandwich was simple, clean and hearty. The pink wedge of salmon (shoved between a moist, grill-scorched roll smeared with tartar sauce), flaked easily, though it was a little dry. At the base of the sandwich are layered paper-thin oblong slices of cucumber. The simplicity works.
Dessert also worked, especially in the feverish environs of this restaurant. (Jones was in the process of adding much-needed air conditioning capacity, and in the interim, he installed a pair of portable air conditioners with curved nozzles and long, white accordion ducts that reach into the ceiling, making the dining room look a little like a Tuscan science fair). Lemon tiramisu was light and refreshing and downplayed with no espresso, though there were chocolate shavings on top.
Café Italia is an odd room with furiously spinning ceiling fans that seem to do little more than force the rising hot air back down to the floor. Bookshelves backed with '70s-era wood paneling are stuffed with wine bottles, pictures and books. In a stab seemingly to create a new breed of eclecticism, drapery rods were installed in the ceiling, from which hang thin billows of fabric, seemingly placed at random around the restaurant. Well, almost at random. Draperies frame the bar (with a back bar gilded in copper sheeting) and one randomly selected table in columns of fabric. The remainder of these installations don't seem to have a purpose. Ruby chandeliers with little bead shades over the bulbs illuminate the place.
Café Italia is one of those restaurant inspirations that you pray has potential buried somewhere, because despite the haphazard look of the dining room and the unruly composure of the menu, it has an inviting feel, one that makes you want to root for the darn thing. Maybe when that air conditioning comes on line, cooler heads will prevail.