In Grotto there is a painting of a nude woman painting a cityscape. This is important. Because nothing encapsulates the complete Grotto experience like this image, tucked into one of the cartoonish murals smeared across the walls. "On the walls, our Felliniesque murals reflect the festive traditions of Italy," reads a Grotto Web blurb. "The characters are enjoying their meals and enjoying life." At least one of them in the buff.
This isn't the only interior detail worthy of note. Grotto swells with rich decorative strokes, from terra cotta tiled ceilings framed with wood crossbeams and ceiling arches embedded with terra cotta brick to a glassed-in kitchen and a slick bar, the back end of which breathes fire on account of the wood-burning pizza oven and large rotisserie that smolder there. The rotisserie sears and chars whole chickens on spits that rotate and pivot at what seems to be uncommon rapidity. Volume. Speed. Efficiency. These are the hallmarks of corporate governance, even for festive Italian operations.
But how does this taste? Grotto's fired chickens are served with the usual scorches and brittle skin. The seasoning is unremarkable. The meat is dry with fibers that fray ever so slightly like worn burlap. But the roasted potatoes are good, and the bright green asparagus tips ribboned in cream sauce are crisp and tasty.
Billed as a transport to an authentic trattoria on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Grotto was the work of noted Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone before it was picked up in 2003 by Landry's Restaurants Inc., which added Grotto to its voluminous stable that includes Chart House, Saltgrass Steak House, Cadillac Bar and Willie G's. Landry's then embarked on Grotto expansion plans. The Dallas Grotto, housed in Uptown on McKinney Avenue, opened last March—the first expansion of the concept outside Houston. Other Grottos are blooming in Las Vegas and Palm Beach, Florida.
"How's everybody doin' today?" asks our waiter, a robustly forward cog in Grotto's finely tuned service machine. He asks if we want anything to drink. I ask about the Caparzo Rosso Di Montalcino, a Tuscan red wine. Has he tasted it?
Grotto Dallas features some 264 selections, "of which an astounding 78 percent are from Italy!" says Grotto's Web site. Actually, that is astounding for an Italian restaurant in Dallas. Grotto also has 34 wines by the glass.
"The Caparzo Rosso. Ah, yes, I have," he answers. "It's excellent. It really is. It's very smooth. It does have a very old-world flavor to it. It does have a real bite to it. It is earthy."
That it is. It's smooth. It reeks of earth. It bites with a metallic pinch. It's better than the food.
Not all of it, of course. The bread basket is heaped with slices of warm, moist bread and long, crisp breadsticks. This gives you something to do while you wait for menus, which don't appear until long after the Caparzo is poured. And repoured. The servers are attentive.
Grotto's pastas are made from scratch. Grotto offers a huge antipasti buffet offering everything from eggplant to mussels to tomatoes and olives. Grotto has pizzas.
We plumbed around Grotto's edges. Our server heartily talked up the seared sea scallops wrapped in prosciutto, the salmon "becca" and the snapper Siciliano. The latter is his favorite.
Seared sea scallops are wrapped tightly in strips of prosciutto, rendered mahogany by intense heat. They're bathed in Barolo sauce. The scallops are firm. They cleave into neat, clean sections in the mouth, separating under gentle dental pressure. The prosciutto is crisp and briny. The scallops are served over cauliflower Parmesan—a mashed-potato-like dab—that softens both the textures and the attack of the sharp, cured flavor provided by the prosciutto. The effect is successful, one of few such glints in the Grotto glare.
The most compelling thing about the salmon becca is how the salmon fillets curl up off the plate. Crusted in sesame seeds, the curvaceous fish is bland beige instead of rose or pink or coral or tawny from severe grill marks. Tucked in a corner is a dab of supple steamed spinach, deep green leaves that add intensity to the otherwise colorless plate. The salmon fillet cups a couple of shrimp, their tails curving out of the pool of lemon white wine sauce. The shrimp are deeply soapy. The salmon is impossibly dull. Not flawed, just boring, like a piece of overfried cod, only not as exciting.
Even more difficult to comprehend is the wretchedness of the snapper Siciliano. You'd think there would be something riveting about this preparation: capellini (pasta)-crusted red snapper topped with jumbo lump crab and Roma tomatoes in a garlic shrimp sauce. The sauce looks like a yellow cheese goo, the kind you might find on Luby's broccoli. Sections of crab are sweet and richly delicious, but the fish is thick and mushy—almost fuzzy—and virtually flavorless with a pasty crust to glue the finish into place. It was difficult to pursue further after just a couple of bites.
It's odd the food behaves this way. The kitchen, a jewel-case invention with glass walls so that diners can peer into the mechanizations, features a crisply attired kitchen team. Chefs wear tall toques. Servers display cutting-edge hairstyles and eyewear.
But little of what they deliver is worthy of much attention. Though the portions are large, meals are delivered warm to cool instead of hot, though the veal kickerillo threw off a few wisps of steam. It's Parmesan-crusted veal scaloppini topped with fat mushrooms and seasoned with lemon squeezes. A side of fettuccini Alfredo nestled nearby is near perfect, and there's even a mushroom cake, a kind of fungus hush puppy. Pieces of veal are large, sprawling across the plate. But the meat is dry and uninteresting. The Parmesan topping was gummy, like paste infested with soggy fuzz.
Crab claws scapricciatiello, a long string of letters that essentially spells crab claws sautéed in Marsala wine with garlic, basil and tomatoes, was hot and tasty. Crab meat is firm and plump instead of stringy and sweet, nicely foiled by the restrained potency of the herb and spice formula.
But the mozzarella in padella, thick slices of mozzarella with tomatoes, shavings of garlic clove and basil, though served hot, was crowned with golden sheets of "seared" mozzarella that were cold in the center instead of warm.
Flourless chocolate cake is rich, creamy and moist with a sharp chocolate bite to offset the sweetness, which brings us back to that mural image of the nude woman painting an Italian cityscape. Grotto is like that nude image, because the mechanics of the place, the staff and the color—the movement—is far more alluring than the actual creations. You'll find yourself staring at the artist, wishing all the while you didn't have to divert your gaze to the art. And mostly that's typical Dallas Italian.
2222 McKinney Ave. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.