Modo Mio tags itself as "cucina rustica Italiana," but we could tell by the voice on the phone that it didn't entirely fit that description. And sure enough, when we arrived we were greeted at the door by the stylish blonde attached to that voice, fashionably dressed in an understated way, casually but impeccably coiffed. The to-the-core chic and the accent were both unmistakably French, and not even a little bit rustica. I can only guess we were looking askance at her, because she was quick with reassurance: "Don't panic," she said. "I am Fr-r-rench, but I don't kook. Zee chef eez Eetalian and a vairy good kook."
So what do you expect from a restaurant whose name translates to "My Way"?
It's a restaurant of stubborn idiosyncrasy. In a business that studies trends as if they were the Talmud and then follows them as if they were step-by-step instructions to enlightenment, Modo Mio does indeed do things its own way. Martine Varlet and her partner in the kitchen, chef Rino Brigliadori, had planned to open a Dallas sibling to their popular trattoria in Pacific Palisades and to run both restaurants from Dallas. But it was too hard flying back and forth, and anyway they liked the people better in Texas, so they sold their restaurant in Los Angeles to concentrate on the one in Dallas, reputedly one of the toughest restaurant markets in the country. Does this make sense?
And Modo Mio has also contradicted the compass points of Dallas dining, which traditionally call for a restaurant to establish itself on McKinney or in Deep Ellum before opening a branch up north. But from way far north on Frankford Road (in the location formerly occupied by San Remo), Martine and Rino seem to have overcome Dallasites' natural geographical prejudice--Modo Mio attracts regular diners from Uptown, downtown, Preston Hollow, and Park Cities, people who swear they never venture north of LBJ.
Not only that: though the menu does offer tiramisu, portobello mushrooms, and Caesar salad, all only semi-"Eetalian" dishes and all at the top of the trend list, most of the food at Modo Mio looks and tastes out of the ordinary in that it's astonishingly straightforward, striking in its simplicity. This chef isn't interested in a competition with Philip Johnson--there is no "tall" food on Rino's menu. Neither, traveling back through trend-time, is the rim of the plate dusted with powdered sugar or ground herbs. Most dishes seem to contain only a handful of ingredients, and not all of those are listed in the menu descriptions. "Grilled veal chop with herbs" is a typically elusive description. Which herbs? Grilled over what? Where did this veal come from? What comes with it? What is it garnished with? It's so nice not to know, so refreshing not to be told in elaborate detail.
In fact, the food is downright minimalist in its presentation as well as its description. This kitchen doesn't even waste its time with parsley.
Instead, the chef's time seems to be spent on the food itself--all of which, according to Martine, is cooked to order. If a diner doesn't like garlic, she says, it's not a problem, because nothing is prepared ahead. (Why a diner who doesn't like garlic is eating in an Italian restaurant is another problem.) A good example was the appetizer of portobello mushrooms, brought to us still hot and sizzling--obviously, the meaty chunks had been popped into a pan slicked with olive oil as soon as we ordered, seared quickly with a little garlic and parsley, then slipped out on to the hot plate and served. That was it. Mushrooms on a plate. But they were served hot, as food so seldom is these days, when the elaborate garniture and plate composition requires its presence in the kitchen long after the cooking is finished. And these mushrooms had no more seasoning than required to make them taste even more like themselves. They were wonderful by themselves or with the thick-crusted yeast bread and a glass of the house Chianti. They'd be good balanced on a piece of the crackling-thin focaccia, too.
"Insalata Modo Mio" was a plate of paler greens than are generally considered chic in these days of dark and bitter leaves--torn escarole leaves and pale moons of sliced fennel shining with a lightly acidic and beautifully oiled vinaigrette were given substance by unremarkable tomatoes and two slices of some of the best mozzarella I've had in a while. Made from buffalo milk, which is about twice as rich as cow's milk, this cheese is imported from Italy and had a shortness of texture and a dairy freshness that set it apart from most mozzarella. Martine would like to find a source closer to home, but I know from Dallas' Mozzarella Company that good buffalo milk is hard to find.
The unadorned soup of the day, vegetable with a twist, was not embellished with so much as a swirl of cream. The cooked vegetables had merely been pureed to the consistency of thick broth and seasoned so it had all the complexity of a good vegetable soup in each anonymous, pumpkin-colored spoonful. "Mosaica de peperoni" was a little prettier than most plates, but only because red and yellow peppers are themselves prettier. Flat roasted and peeled squares of pepper flesh glistening with olive oil were arranged side-by-side on the chilled plate with slices of goat cheese and sundried tomatoes as sweet and dark as cherries.
I have mentioned many times--one could fairly say carped on--the dearth of really good Italian restaurants in a city with pizza and spaghetti in every block. The kind of place Modo Mio aspires to be is what I'm looking for; the menu at Modo Mio reads a little differently from most Italian menus. There's the expected selection of pizzas, the usual lists of pastas, entrees, and appetizers, but then you find the variations. Gnocchi are at the top of the pasta list, a dish of scampi e fagioli is available as an appetizer, and along with the inevitable boneless chicken breast, a roasted Cornish hen is offered. Whole. And when you order it, it arrives split down its breast, spread-eagled on the plate. It has bones and a taut golden skin, and you can tell that this food was once actually a bird, which some people who prefer several degrees of separation from their own carnivorousness might find repellent, but which I found appealing and reassuring. A little lemon squeezed over the simply roasted bird was all the sauce required, and the chef had opted out of another chance to garnish by serving the roasted potatoes and slim green beans on a side plate.
Slices of scaloppine al limone were pounded to tenderness, left unbreaded, and flashed just until tenderly cooked, which left the little things an unappetizing gray. I have to say that, much as I appreciate the straightforward presentation of food that tastes good even if it isn't beautiful, I think this veal could have used a discreet shower of chopped parsley or something. I think that food is much like a face--the best idea for both is to appear naturally beautiful. Bobbi Brown suggests only that a face should appear to be unadorned, not that nature doesn't need a helping hand. Parsley is the kitchen's lipstick: Sometimes you need a little.
As dumplings are basically boiled dough and Texans are Southern enough to love dumplings, and as Italian food is such an overwhelming favorite that we've assimilated calamari, arugula, and risotto, it's surprising to me that we don't see gnocchi on more menus. These miniature potato dumplings have all the bland appeal of pasta--you can sauce them with anything--and yet they aren't pasta, which alone is enough to recommend them to most of us pasta-weary parents. Unfortunately, the gnocchi at Modo Mio had been cooked just past the point of perfection. Some of the little globules still had a firm texture, but others were disintegrating slightly, becoming one with their bath of pesto cream. Linguine del pollaio suffered from the opposite problem. The bowl held noodles tangled with grilled chicken strips, wads of sundried tomato, whole poached garlic cloves, and a stray leaf or two of arugula, each of the elements remaining stubbornly individual. A different shape of pasta might have helped things mesh better, or a quick toss in a pan together. As it was, I found myself, like a child eating from a cafeteria plate, eating each ingredient separately. Pizza Modo Mio, though, was excellent, the brown puffy crust loaded with eggplant joining creamily with melted goat cheese and garlic.
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Baked desserts, presented on a tray for our selection, were good, especially the layered berry cake, but the best choice of dessert was one of the sorbets--peach, pineapple, or coconut--imported from Italy and served in an appropriate hollowed fruit. Lighter on the tongue and silkier than most sorbets, they still had a remarkably clear fruit flavor.
The restaurant itself is as understated as the food. Joey Vallone might want to take a look at this place, a restaurant more distinctive for its understatedness than its ostentation; for its emphasis on dining, not scenemaking, on the diner, not the restaurant. Bisected by a wall and railing into two levels, the space is long and deep, furnished with sturdy wood chairs and white-clad tables, the walls finished a weathered Tuscan gold with a mural depicting the rollicking good medieval times they used to have at harvest with one rollicking peasant lifting a jug and belting out a song. (Perhaps the prototypical Sinatra singing "My Way".) That's it.
Modo Mio, 18352 Dallas Parkway, (972) 671-MODO. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Insalata Modo Mio $8.50
Portabello Trifolato $8.50
Gnocchi Modo Mio $9.50
Pizza Modo Mio $9.50
Galletto al Mattone $13.00