Great things can disappear in an instant as some momentous burp rattles mankind and alters the face of history. Pompeii, a town southeast of Naples, Italy, built on a spur of prehistoric lava, is just one example. In A.D. 79, it was destroyed in a flash by a hard-driving, molten rock stew spewing from Mount Vesuvius, freezing a few of its inhabitants into permanent museum pieces and History Channel specials after the Hitler footage has been exhausted. Salve! Ristorante was another example, wiped from an asphalt spur on McKinney Avenue by the hard-charging lava of lawyers and impatient bankers.
It's doubtful Mi Piaci--kin to Salve! and likewise founded by visionary restaurateurs Phil and Janet Cobb--will be removed from Dallas by some legalistic eruption. If this restaurant slips off the pavement, it will be worn away, as if by slow, tortuous drips of water.
The drops are few but conspicuous. The bar is almost barren during weekday happy hours, as is the dining room as the evening progresses. The cushions on the barstools have untended and prominent open wounds, exposing the stuffing through frayed fabric edges. Walls on one side of the dining room are scarred with deep dirty grooves, from chair backs, presumably.
And then there is the chef shuffling. The executive chef post is behaving like the Soviet Union's general secretary slot in the 1980s (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev in just three years). Over the past couple of years, Todd Nelson, Steve Kelly, Joel Harloff and Tim Penn (executive chef in 1996) held the post before Michael Marshall, formerly of the Riviera before it closed and reopened, assumed it.
That Mi Piaci is a classic goes without saying. Through the years it has collected critical acclaim not only from local publications, but from national rags with gloss--Gourmet, Esquire, Town and Country, Food & Wine. The all-Italian wine list has garnered recognition from The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines.
But does the food still "please" as the moniker calls out? (Mi Piaci means "you're pleasing to me" in the language of opera.) Yes, with a little no. Much of the food is as tight, tasty and beautiful as you'd expect from a restaurant flaunting a Northern Italian sensibility. Prosciutto de Parma arrives as overlapping sheets, with parcels across the surface ranging in hue from deep rose to faded peach, separated by needle-thin white veins of fat. Instead of smooth, the sheets are bumpy, draping slices of cantaloupe and plumb tucked underneath. This cured ham is satiny, and too large to fold, pierce and gather with fork tines to install between the lips. Yet this is not a problem, because while this sultry ham is firm and dense, it is tender enough to cut with a fork. Sea and mountain winds around Parma in Northern Italy are said to provide the distinctive flavor and delicacy of this ham. Once it passes the lips, the fabric is pleasantly chewy with pronounced sweetness cut off at the knees by a lurking salt bite--silk from a sow's ear.
Classic reruns like the insalata alla caprese carry the same tone. Halved slices of alternating red and yellow tomato are draped with creamy cuttings of buffalo mozzarella, all doused with olive oil and arranged on an oval plate with meticulous precision. The tomatoes were firm but juicy--barely skirting mealy-ness--and they lacked richness. Three flawless basil leaves (no blemishes or brown edges) were pressed into the center, a compressed piece of style.
But does Mi Piaci still have good spud sense? Gnocchi is the classic potato dumpling that, more often than not in Dallas, is a tortured facsimile of Dow implants or some kind of swamp mush. Not here. These pillows are firm and delicate with just enough give and that slight tuber grip in the mouth. They bump an already lumpy wild boar ragout with crimini mushrooms and scraps of wilted baby spinach. Delete the near-perfect gnocchi, and the dish still startles, on account of its richness and broad range of flavors. Pieces of boar are tender and chewy with a dash of rusticity (smoky earth) on the finish--a mind-expanding treatment.
Where there's boar, there's beef. Thick beef tenderloin, rose red in the center, is silky and rich, melting easily in the trap. It's perched on a semolina tort soaking in a gorgonzola sangiovese sauce, a slinky foil to the rich sweetness of the beef. Italians (like the Chinese) have a fondness for rapini, vegetation related to both the cabbage and the turnip. Its pungent stalks are studded with tiny buds that resemble broccoli florets. The stalks are gently assembled over the thick fillet's flat top, giving it a deep rich green, rocking the meat with its pungency.
But it's the wine that brings everything to a sweet pitch. The list is logical, broken down into whites and reds and further diced into regions--Piedmont, Umbria, Tuscany, Veneto. Italian wine is pure sex. It would be unthinkably clumsy to toss around terms like Brix, titratable acidity, pH, ethanol levels or road tar when discussing vino from the boot. That'd be like discussing hormone levels and essential blood flow physiology before locking lips with a romantic interest. Italian wine goes straight for the groin, permitting unnecessary technical discussions only after you catch your breath. Mi Piaci has the lot of them: pinot grigio, Barolo, Barbaresco, super Tuscans and Chianti. Perhaps no wine arouses quite like Brunello di Montalcino, crafted from a variant of the sangiovese grape. Mi Piaci has several, ranging from roughly $85 to $150 and beyond. But you can also capture that silky sensuality for much less. Morellino di Scansano was nearly as smooth and complex at $47--a monkfish to Brunello's lobster.
Which is what brodetto alla livornese holds (lobster, that is, in the rock variety) in tandem with shrimp, mussels and clams in a shellfish and saffron broth. Seafood was good, but the broth was tepid.
A better seafood backdrop was the fettuccine with rock shrimp. It was sown with thick flat noodles that were perfectly cooked. The shrimp weren't plump and firm. These coils were more varied and complex in a texture that was heightened with a rich marine flavor. They were mixed with capers, sun-dried tomatoes, basil scraps, mushrooms and kalamata olives in a light wine sauce.
But like the barstool blemish, the menu had dismaying moments as well. If there is a menu installation that must be precise, it's beef carpaccio. Mi Piaci's version arrives as a creamy layering of tangy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shingles applied over raw beef sheets with arugula scattered over the expanse. But instead of cool with rosy hues, the beef was gray, and its flavor was flooded with an off sweetness, the kind that signals decomposition may have stepped into the starting blocks. How could a diligent chef let such a glaring lapse slip through the kitchen filters? Especially in carpaccio, in which the sensual pleasure rests in the laciness of the thinly sliced rosy meat that disintegrates in the mouth?
Risotto with porcini mushrooms and asparagus was a ruckus, too. Instead of an elegant creamy mound or dollop carefully settled in the center of a bowl, this had stiff, coarse grains strewn haphazardly over a plate. Pan-seared sea bass with bell pepper and fava bean sofrito (a sauce with olive oil) was spongy and flaccid.
Dessert was redemption. Tiramisu was a perfect square of light, fluffy and consistent texture with rich flavors that never descended into a soggy swamp peat. Panna cotta fragola, a creamy custard, was tight, firm and luxuriously smooth.
After a dozen years, Mi Piaci is still fresh and relevant with clean modern lines that effectively channel sun and candlelight until the room sparkles. The main dining room is dominated by a wall of windows overlooking a pond with embedded jets, framing vigorous fountain sprays shooting in all directions.
Here's hoping Mi Piaci is immune to the danger of the slow drip.
14854 Montfort, 972-934-8424. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$-$$$
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