Al Dente has been one of the most popular restaurants on Lower Greenville for years, repeatedly named in one people's poll or another (including ours) as The Best Italian Restaurant. It only proves once again what a dubious prize is popularity. The accolades only raise expectations to unreasonable heights. Al Dente is a perfectly pleasant, usable Italian restaurant; but sound the trumpets too loud and it gets blown away.
It's not that we had a terrible meal at Al Dente. On the contrary, we had a pretty good dinner, but it was not nearly the best in town. Superlatives just don't work here, and you damn the place with too much praise. The place is appealing, but hardly irresistible. In fact, it looks a lot like several other neighborhood restaurants--a long, pleasant room with rows of tables decorously laid with white cloths and, opposite, a bar. On a weeknight, the place seemed almost abandoned at 7, though this part of town eats late and by 8 more people were arriving. But we had to wait several minutes when we arrived before we even saw anyone who seemed to work there, and the kitchen was slow--maybe not expecting anyone at all.
There's a nice list of wines by the glass, but our waiter told us the restaurant had "sold out of them over the weekend," so we left fiction behind and settled down in real life with a bottle of mediocre Chianti that we sipped while we waited for our salad and antipasto, wondering why we were waiting quite so long for a platter of cold food. Meanwhile, we were served complementary bruschetta, the latest dish to mystify us from Italy. Like tiramisu, which is not prepared the same at any two Dallas restaurants, bruschetta is a constantly surprising dish; you never know exactly what you're going to get when you order it. Sometimes it's like a bread pizza, sometimes it's glorified garlic toast. Al Dente serves long splits of styrofoam-textured bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic, along with a dish of chopped tomatoes, seasoned with more garlic and basil, to pile on it--closer to authentic than most overdressed versions. The antipasto platter, when it did come, featured one thick disc of wet mozzarella--like congealed milk drizzled with brown balsamic--a couple of rolls of braseola, Italian dried beef, several thin discs of hard, fat-spotted sausage, artichoke heart quarters, olives, and radicchio. Caesar salad was a predictably mild mix of cold romaine and airy croutons.
The menu features every usual Italian dish--like linguine con vongole and saltimbocca--as well as four risotti, which isn't usual. Neither is pollo Rossini, a classic chicken preparation made with foie gras, or lasagna made with shrimp and scallops. The kitchen is ambitious; maybe its efforts are directed at more complicated food than we ordered.
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Simple penne with tomato sauce and mozzarella was one companion's special request, the sauce replacing the fresh tomato chunks specified on the menu, and probably to better effect considering the general state of fresh tomatoes right now. The soft cheese had melted into the marinara, making a rich, drippy cheese sauce for the thick pasta tubes. But the taste of scorched garlic (a flavor that stays with you for days) permeated the dish, as it did the risotto pomodoro secchi, which was nicely cooked to that sticky, barely chewy point that can only be achieved by a fussy cook, but seasoned as well with flavorless fresh tomato chunks and big limp lumps of sun-dried tomato. A special of alleged sole, served simply with lemon and a side of oiled spaghetti, was fine--fresh and nicely cooked.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Al Dente, 1920 Greenville Ave., (214) 821-6054. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Al Dente Antipasto
Risotto Pomodoro Secchi
Penne Al Dente