In music you run headlong into cruelty when composing with an economy of notes, positioning single tones or sparse phrases in stark nakedness, sometimes bracketing them in empty measures so that each lingers on its own. They must be placed with exacting care to survive. There are no flurried note runs or harmonic riches to shield them. Austere music with well-placed tones can wring tears.
I'm not sure if Julian Barsotti's cooking at Nonna will have you dabbing your eyes, but you can be sure it will elicit contemplative pauses in which the mouth quivers as flavors leach and spread. There's a distinct sensuality at work here, one that kneads and twists your taste buds in ways they may never have moved, at least in Dallas.
Here's one mover: anolini of Maine lobster—nine oval, ravioli-like pillows arranged in a bull's-eye ring, each swollen with chopped lobster tail meat and butter. They rest in a simple amber sauce of lobster stock, butter and white wine with smears of melted honeycomb. In the mouth there is a bisque-like richness that contrasts with the delicacy of the pasta. It tastes huge, but feels cumulous. It's a precious few notes, exactingly placed.
The nub of Barsotti's philosophy lies in his passion for straightforward simplicity. "What's really difficult about simple cooking is when you're trying to make ingredients sing," he says. "If everything's not perfect, it fails."
Thus, Barsotti does everything by hand. He house-cures meats. He grinds and binds sausage. He kneads and extrudes pasta. He kneads and rests and bakes bread in a wood-fired oven. He tries to express the most with the least.
Barsotti comes from a long line of culinarians. His family on his mother's side served house-made pastas at Carbone's, a continental restaurant with Italian trimmings that was at various times in Manhattan and New Jersey for more than 90 years. He calls his father, a Memphis Italian, a food fanatic. Since he was 6, Barsotti has fiddled and worked in the kitchens of The Food Company, the catering firm his mother Shelley Hudson operates with partner Andrea Hager in a strip mall near the Park Cities. It's here, in what was formerly The Food Company's event space, that Nonna resides.
"I've always been kind of obsessed with Italian food," Barsotti confesses. "No other food appeals to me more, food-wise." His culinary trail threaded him from Dallas through the legendary Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, California, where he learned the nuances of pasta composition using low-gluten flours, water and salt. He returned to Dallas armed with these techniques roughly a year ago. He quickly modified them. Now he combines low-gluten flour with all-purpose flour to juice up the toothiness of many of his pastas, retaining the techniques he learned in Oakland, when he feels it complements the specific ingredients he's working with.
Barsotti's 40-seat Italian restaurant is tiny but strangely un-cramped. And the food is not rigorously authentic. Instead, what Barsotti does is cop an Italian modus operandi, invigorating his food with a minimalist style while plucking components from whatever regions inspire him, mixing and matching in a kind of boot fusion. "If an Italian ate here," he says, "they would scold me...they'd think I'm a fraud."
There is truth in this fraudulence. He incorporates tajarin, a rich egg yolk pasta from Piedmont, with pancetta and asparagus. He uses the delicate, low-gluten pastas from Southern Italy—better complements to the south's acidic sauces—in his Northern Italian dishes.
He kilns Neapolitan-style pizzas in a wood-burning oven. They're rolled thinner than the credit-card-thick pizzas the Neapolitan discipline generally demands. They emerge consistent, light, evanescent, yet crispy—brittle clouds bearing smoked mozzarella, house-made pancetta or baby shiitakes. Among the keys to properly firing pizzas, insists Barsotti, is a properly insulated oven, one with a "hearth" that is well-fired and consistent. No undue hot spots. No brittle char on the edges yielding to elusive crispness in the center.
He fires breads here, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt. Loaves are mere balloons, thin-crusted, puffed-up with yeasty steam that seeps out, collapsing the loaf with the first tear. Each tatter is an instant utensil for sopping sauces from the anolini of Maine lobster or the pappardelle with quail ragu: chopped quail meat (a little dry) tossed with the large fettuccini in an extracted quail stock blended with garlic, onion, rosemary, sage and thyme. Sometimes he blends this with kale.
Handcrafting extends to meat. The salumi palate might contain house-cured mortadella or rigatino. Others are procured from other places, such as the finochietta, red leathery slices perked with fennel. By summer, Barsotti promises, Nonna will have a curing room installed in The Food Company's enormous and poshly appointed kitchen, to present only Nonna examples.
This menu is minimal, with just a handful of selections under antipasti, pizza, pasta and wood-fired oven headings. The latter includes a sweet, flaky slab of halibut in a tangy plum tomato sauce, flitted with capers, bits of fennel and olive. Also from the wood fires is Barsotti's Luciano-style sausage, four long narrow links on a bed of cannellini beans. The sausage is brilliant: rich, juicy, a firm snap on the tooth. To achieve this, Barsotti uses fresh hog skins for binding and pork from naturally raised hogs. He varies the grind of the meat to imbue the links with complex textures, blending in only back fat and anise to enhance flavors.
Olive oil poached shrimp is served over a sprawl of chilled garbanzo beans with thin slices of celery and yellow blossoms over the top for color. Shrimp is slowly poached in a pan of olive oil heated just past the point of touch-tolerance for 6 to 12 minutes. This not only forges a velvety texture, it focuses and heightens the racy marine richness, no doubt elevated by a slow absorption of olive oil fats.
Baby artichokes, coated in semolina and fried into brittle gold, look like little Roman torches flickering in amber. A little greasy perhaps, but they still work as a counterpoint to the locally procured watercress mesh posted nearby.
The dining room is as subtle as the food. Portals squared off in the used brick wall that divides dining room from bar contain long, elaborate candlestick holders. The bar is washed in diluted greens. The dining room has hefty wooden tables and a striped banquette that runs the length of the room anchored by that wood-fired oven, sheathed in tiny ceramic tiles, bordered by a marble counter strip, seemingly smokeless.
Finish with a rhubarb cobbler, a craggy top holding a scoop of lemon gelato. Crisp cake. Smooth drippings. Brash tart. Not too much sweet. Sound, lucid tones, unadorned. Near perfect. Like so much in the Nonna canon.
4115 Lomo Alto Drive, 214-521-1800. Open 5:30-9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.