If Alberto Lombardi possesses one quality, it's persistence, gobs of it. He took a huge gamble on McKinney Avenue, installing Bizú, that natty slinger of mediocre Franco-American grub, in the former Sfuzzi space, which also served as a crypt for Coco Pazzo. When Bizú bit it, Lombardi slipped in Mangia e Bevi, a casual spot that served Mediterranean tapas. When that didn't work, lawsuits were served. (The landlord, McKinney Square Properties, filed suit against Lombardi in July 2001, and Lombardi counterpunched in October).
Having paid his gut-wrenching McKinney Avenue dues, Lombardi decided to enter Snider Plaza, purchasing wonder chef Avner Samuel's Bistro A, which had just gone to seed as a global whatchamacallit dubbed Ethniko. In its place, Lombardi installed a simple Italian bistro he calls Penne Pomodoro. (He also hired Samuel as executive chef of Lombardi Mare after Samuel's kosher deli in North Dallas pickled. Is Lombardi addicted to harsh dues payments or what?) Penne Pomodoro is a bold stroke, a shrewd take on the Park Cities neighborhood it inhabits. This restaurant doesn't serve great, mind-bending food. But is that really what is demanded of a neighborhood dining room that patrons might hit two or three times a week? Maybe a surprise culinary consciousness expander every now and again is in order, but mostly neighborhood meal seekers want simple, tasty recipes and unerring consistency.
Steamed mussels would fill this bill. Sure, they're a little on the skimpy side, and the white-wine broth studded with tomatoes and roasted garlic is just a couple of twitches away from sleepy (compulsive bread dip this ain't). But the tiny amber bulbs of meat were sweet, tender and fresh and void of off-tasting strains.
Yet when Penne does decide to stretch its legs, it does so with aplomb. Calamari salad, a deceptively simple arrangement of calamari strips, celery and red onion in a lime dressing, is dazzling. The slivers of calamari are tender and silky, responding to dental pressure like slices of fine cheese. This is kicked up a couple of volume ticks with celery greens, which mingle with the lime, pumping up the raciness and adding bracing contrast to the demurely sweet calamari meat.
Little surprises like that lie in wait across the menu landscape, even when the focus is on the lowly artichoke, made even lower by a forced conjunction with spuds. But the potato and artichoke soup is not what you might think. It is a supremely balanced blend with the potato injecting just the slightest bit of grip while the artichoke is left to flaunt flavors. And those flavors are so pronounced, it's hard to keep in mind you're slurping from a spoon instead of dragging a waxy leaf through your teeth. The only thing this soup needed was a tiny dollop of crème fraîche to add some cool contrast.
Another piece of Penne simplicity should be simply avoided. The Tuscan salad is a coarse jumble of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and peppers studded with plain cubes of Tuscan bread all washed in a lemon-herb vinaigrette. The vegetables were fine, but those bread cubes, soaked with brisk dressing, created a bizarre strain of mush that was hard to get down.
But then the kitchen belts you back with sheer pleasure. The whole roasted pompano, a pale gray-green fish with a facial expression that very nearly mimics a smirk, has a cavity packed with creamy white, moist and delicately sweet flesh. The fish soaks in a garlic white-wine sauce littered with cherry tomatoes, artichokes and shallots. The sauce broadens the savor while respecting the fish's frail, clean flavors.
Calamari Milanese was another shining piece of simplicity. Dusted lightly with breadcrumbs and herbs, the meat was buttery, clean and tasty.
One side of the Penne Pomodoro menu is a mix-and-match roster of pastas (tagliolini, tortellini, angel hair, etc.) with sauces (primavera, Bolognese, Alfredo, etc.). But the gnocchi with salsiccia al telefono, a sweet Italian sausage ragout with tomato and mozzarella cheese, fell far short of the rest of the kitchen offerings. While the sauce was rich, the gnocchi was soft and mushy, like little mashed potato buds coagulated into grape-sized servings.
Nico Chessa, who has traipsed a McKinney Avenue path almost as strange as Lombardi's, charges the Penne Pomodoro kitchen. The Sardinian native arrived in Dallas from Houston, where he worked at Arcodoro, to lead the kitchen at Patrick Colombo's Ferré Ristorante & Bar in the West Village. When that post didn't work, he landed at the short-lived Geode down the street. After evacuating that kitchen, he landed at Penne Pomodoro. With this kind swift maneuvering, Lombardi and Chessa might want to slow down. Being pillars of the neighborhood is much easier on the kidneys.
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