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Middle of the Boot

Not only is the food good, Riccardi's owners make their own wine.
Tom Jenkins

Just because you're upscale doesn't mean you can't kitsch. Riccardi's does it, with flair maybe, but it does it. Riccardi's is tucked in the space that was once the elegantly flashy Mediterraneo, back in the day when the restaurant was going to be the Benz in the FoodStar restaurant group's blitzkrieg of some 40 restaurants. In between that and Riccardi's was Ruggeri's, meaning this space has been locked into a culinary Med club for nearly a decade. It seems the blue terrazzo floor has been left intact. So has the curvaceous blurry glass barrier between the dining room and the bar, if memory serves. But in other spaces, well...The vestibule vaults upward, and patched over each flat surface is a piece of Sistine Chapel ceiling scenery: God touching Adam's finger to transmit the secrets of saltimbocca; the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for using black mission olives in the antipasto Napolitano--that sort of thing. The rest of space has delicate Italian ironwork, creamy textured walls, blue votives, hardwood floors and lacy reliefs and frescos dressing the wall.

Maybe this is why suspicion looms once the menu is deployed. Italian has a bad rap in this town. Apart from a precious few moments of brilliance, it's all gray prosciutto, icy carpaccio, badly executed piccata and knotted capellini. Which side of the fence does Riccardi's occupy?

If shaved cattle loin is the benchmark, straight down the middle. This carpaccio is typical: a plate of carefully tiled rose-red slices, thin as gauze, almost blinding in their candy apple intensity. Stare at it too long and you'd get red eye, except for this: a tuft of arugula flecked with shavings of Parmesan rises from the center of the meat puzzle, blunting the visual impact. The composite is then drizzled with olive oil.

This sets up some compelling interplay. Laced with a spider orb of thin threads of fat, the tenderloin is cool. It disperses almost on contact, spreading wide and thin--like an oil slick. This creates the perfect oral setting for a pinch of arugula to scrub the tongue of fat film with its racy sting. The Parmesan then slips in to mute the tickle while it bucks up the richness dissipating in a blizzard of foliage.

But even greater than this is Riccardi's deftness with fowl spicing, at least among the small species. This acumen not only manifests in the flavor profiles, it emerges in the fact that--like an enlightened zookeeper or a rich iguana enthusiast--the chef presents the bird in a setting that is as close to its natural habitat as possible. This is the magic of the stuffed quail. Assembled in a bowl, the preparation seems designed for maximum visual impact. The quail sits--or rather lies since its legs jut upward in a brothel pose--in a nest of slightly crisped capellini, twisted and coiled like a weave of twigs and grass.

Ringing the nest is a mote of brandy cream sauce intermittently dotted with mushroom caps and halved cherry tomatoes. Tucked inside the bird is a blend of Italian sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and chopped pistachios. The flesh, which is moist and juicy with clean flavors, hugs the essence of this core tightly. And no wonder. The rich earthy flavors sweating from this culinary magma add dimension to the quail--amazingly without distraction. To keep this seamless mesh from descending into the realm of the expected after two bites, fennel packed into the sausage breaks everything loose from these moorings and hooks the tongue with its licorice sting, confronting the palate with the threat of flavor chaos--yet it doesn't choke with busyness.

With a menu loaded with stuff like this, you'd expect Riccardi's service to shine with polite bluster. Instead, it stumbles with smug bluster. Or just stumbles. Pacing is just plain weird. Example: A server walked past and noticed my empty wineglass and asked if I'd like another. Er, yes. Two minutes pass, then five, then 10. The server returns and upon noticing my dining companion's glass drained says he was waiting for her to finish so that he could deliver two at once. Hmmm. Wouldn't it be easier to provide diners with bar-coded tokens and send them to get their own refills?

When service isn't weird, it's stiffly perfunctory. On another visit, our server seemed annoyed that we wanted to piggyback our entrées onto the appetizer order to save time. He didn't agree and scampered off with our appetizer commands leaving us with a long gap in which to mull our entrée decisions.

So here you have two service protocols that seem to collide: one aims to consolidate drink freight, another seeks to drop-ship food in small parcels. I smell the age-old struggle between cost-cutting and featherbedding in there somewhere.

But these are the only blemishes to tarnish the Riccardi's experience--that and the risotto mare. It starts out as a fine piece of Italian drama with Mediterranean-style risotto "bursting with calamari, lobster and shrimp." It certainly did the bursting part well. Maybe too well. The shrimp were mushy and scrubbed of flavors except for the aftertaste of fishy dishwater suds, which seeped into the rice grains. And there were far too many of them.

Funny how the shrimp in the scampi positano were the polar opposites of those in the mare heap: plump, firm and reveling in marine bawdiness. Plus, instead of slumbering in a pool of garlic butter, this pair of shrimp hunkers down in a bed of chopped tomatoes, kalamatas, and a garlic wine butter sauce--shrimp flapping in a salsafied tapenade.

But if the sea gives you pause, Riccardi's has a swell hoofed herd to pull from. The veal chop is so perfect in composure, you're suspicious it might be one of those extruded squeaking chops they stuff in the dog's stocking at Christmas. The chop has juicy flesh and a cocoon of richness hugging the bone. Just the slightest pink blushes through the creamy white meat sheathed in whispered grill crustiness.

Wild mushroom risotto, more coarse than creamy, has a strong fungi fume that frames the veal beautifully. Riccardi's prosciutto is pink, rich and sweetly delicious.

Baby lamb rack stomps with the same virility. The chops, assembled in a semicircle of splintered bone and bulbous flushed flesh, is rich and satiny, dribbling juices as it maintained its firm grace in a slush of cannellini bean ragout with stalks of asparagus and a sprig of rosemary adding a lusty earthen frame to the chops. Back on the drinks side, Riccardi's wine list is sprinkled with surprises. Amongst the fairly rounded array of Italian and Californian examples is this: wines crafted from a 168-acre vineyard owned by Riccardi's owners Anita and Gaetano Riccardi in the region of Naples in Southern Italy. Bottled under the label Gaetano da Forino, named for Gaetano Riccardi's hometown of Forino, these single grape wines comprise a Taurasi (red) made from the aglianico grape, a Greco di Tufo (white) made from the ancient Greco grape and a Fiano di Avellino made from the fiano grape. Heck, how many restaurants deposit their own homegrown grape sluice on the menu? That alone is worth delving into to accompany this mostly compelling grub.

This is compelling, too: Berries al Zingaro, "mountain" fruit tucked inside an almond tulie and dribbled with zabaglione sauce, is delicious. Crème brûlée, not so much. While the custard is rich, the whole thing is cold instead of being served with a cool custard topped with a warm, freshly caramelized crust. But at least these weren't delivered with the appetizers.

2800 Routh St. No. 115, 214-303-0881. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$

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Riccardi's Italian Ristorante

2800 Routh St.
Dallas, TX 75201-1333

214-303-0881

www.riccardis-dallas.com


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