Princi Italia's Tuscan Trip Up
Chewing on a tender veal cutlet coated in a thick and soggy layer of flour and blanketed in a lemony but bland sauce studded with artichokes and olives, I almost had to ask: Am I in the right place?
Earlier in the week, I'd lunched at Princi Italia, Preston Hollow's newest Italian offering, and I'd left there nearly ecstatic. It was a sunny, cool day and I sat under an oak tree on the patio capped with a large louver of cedar and steel. I ordered a pinot noir and a salad of arugula dressed simply in lemon. Then I twirled tagliatelle heaped in bolognese. The sauce was rich and meaty but not at all oily, and it was faintly laced with sweet nutmeg. Beirut seeped from the outdoor speakers — a faint whisper of warm brass and velvet vocals, played at a volume that would fade into the background if lost in conversation but return to fill the uncomfortable silences.
I ordered a cannoli as soon as I found out they piped the "little tubes" of fried pastry to order. The filling was a touch too sweet, but the ends, dusted in minced pistachios, made up for the excess. The shell was crisp and crumbly. I found myself in a Marcella Hazan-worthy, lunch-induced bliss.
Fast forward to the following Friday night. I couldn't stop smiling as I walked through the door, a touch past 8, into a humming dining room. It was a packed house, busy with the sounds of silverware, clanking glasses and dinner conversation. Wait staff dressed in jeans and blue button-downs whisked plates and glasses between tables filled with diners. I was certain the meal I was about to experience would live up to my expectations, which were, I'll admit, quite high. A thought had even crossed my mind: Had I found the antidote to the impossible Lucia reservation?
When the hostess told me I'd have to wait 45 minutes for a table I wasn't fazed. I was pleased. It meant my enthusiasm was shared by others, and the delay just gave me more time to sample wines at a bar, where I sat with a family of three celebrating a successful football practice, a pair of young ladies nibbling on flat bread and dressed as sexy devils (it was Halloween weekend) and an older couple sharing a small plate of veal. A bar stool was a hot commodity that night, everyone jockeying for their drink orders.
Later — exactly 45 minutes later — I took my seat, pored over the menu and laid out my plan. I would have a beautiful salad of burratta and fig-laden crostini, perfect pastas and meats dressed simply. To close, a lemon curd tart would sing of summer and bright citrus.
But an oily reality quickly set in. The burratta was only fine — a skimpy serving of soft, rich cheese hidden on a plate of greens and tomatoes. And the crostini was overloaded with sweet figs and Gorgonzola — flavors that might have worked with more restraint, if not for the balsamic reduction. Not vivid, acidic, aged vinegar but a cheap one, reduced to a syrupy, sticky glaze that added too much sweetness to the figs.
Meatballs underwhelmed, too. Served as a trio, the beef version was tender and flavorful (though any Italian Nonna could do better if her heart was in it), and chicken and lamb disappointed. They were lifeless.
The oricchette promised a perfect and classical pairing — bitter sauteed rapini and flavorful Italian sausage, the latter made in-house and full of fennel. But the greens were almost missing, and tomatoes didn't belong. The pasta was bland and under-salted and the whole dish swam in olive oil.
I was losing hope, and the veal carciofi completed the tide's turn. That cutlet got a heavy application of flour that should have been much more understated. The thick coating turned soft and mushy when drenched in a boring sauce that smothered the meat. The dish was a snooze. I haven't grabbed a saltshaker that quickly in some time, but this plate needed it.
I looked around the dining room to see if anyone else looked disappointed, but the room was filled with contented smiles. Families shared pizza slices, first dates traded flirty glances and older couples looked happy to be out of the house. The space around them certainly helped explain their contentment: Princi Italia's dining room is polished, with naked light bulbs hanging inside clear glass carboys above the bar. Above, more light casts downward from inverted bushel baskets turned lampshades that are stained a dull gunmetal blue. The walls are light, and beige and gray tones dominate. The room doesn't feel Italian, but it works.
The staff was reasonably refined during my visits too. They might not have known oregano from marjoram, but they were quick, efficient and warm. Plates came and went with no unnecessary fanfare and napkins got folded when customers excused themselves to the bathroom. One of my servers told me he was hired three weeks before the opening and received extensive training in that time. It showed.
Yes, it's the kitchen where the trouble starts. Owner Patrick Colombo, who also owns Victory Tavern, Ferre and other restaurants, tapped chef Kevin Ascolese to run the kitchen after they worked together to launch Cru Wine Bar, another Colombo creation. Ascolese helped open the Dallas spot and then subsequent locations in Denver and Houston.
Ascolese's track record extends even further back than that, though. He moved to Dallas in 1980 to help open The Mansion at Turtle Creek, where he worked as a poissonnier under Dean Fearing before shifting to other positions in a kitchen that embodied classic French cuisine. But you can't take the Italy out of an Italian, and after bouncing around Ascolese put in time at Sfuzzi and Mi Piaci, where he honed his native craft.
At Princi Italia, Ascolese told me, he sought to create a menu that resonated with the dining room meant to invoke the Italian countryside. He wanted the food to "be a little upscale but not expensive." The focus, according to the chef, was on volume — not on high end.
But volume doesn't have to preclude quality — and it certainly didn't in that bolognese, a perfect example of utilitarian Italian cooking. Ascolese told me the recipe leveraged beef and pork ground fresh in house, supplemented with kitchen scraps of prosciutto when they were available. There was no sacrifice made in that cannoli either, which demonstrated a kitchen more than capable of thoughtful execution.
From there, though, the menu meanders from thoughtless offerings that wouldn't challenge the most timid palates to dishes that completely underwhelm. Ravioli is tough and filled with a boring and runny cheese filling, and veal saltimbocca eats like a nap. Translated literally, the dish should "jump in your mouth," but buried under a blanket of fontina cheese and a sauce laden with butter, the bland cutlet is put to sleep instead.
With the comfortable dining room and staff, I could picture myself lounging through a meal that runs for hours, sipping on wine and nibbling on charcuterie and brined salty olives, and closing with beautiful, small desserts and dark chocolaty espresso. But a timid menu devoid of risks brings that fantasy to a halt, with dishes straight out of an Italian-American cliché. Despite that beautiful bolognese, there are, for now, no Tuscan dreams here.
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