Some places in this country--New York; San Francisco; Chicago; and Krebs, Oklahoma, come immediately to mind--have always had great Italian food. And not just great Italian food. Lots of great Italian food. They have grocery stores that sell handmade cheese and thick-crusted breads, red-checked, Chianti-bottle-lit trattorias that serve lush pastas slathered with thick marinara, and chandelier-glittering ristorantes that present lemon-bathed veal pounded thin as a Saltine and even thinner shavings of raw beef, parmesan, or white truffles. Well, maybe Krebs is lacking in the chandelier and truffles department. But you can buy great, locally made, Italian-style cheese and cured meats there, or you could the last time I drove through the town.
But there is still no truly great Italian food in Dallas (though there are some exciting chandeliers), and the why of this has always seemed simple: There are not enough Italians. It may take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a culture to create a cuisine. Before you reach for the phone, let me acknowledge Campisi's, Lombardi's, LaBarba's, et al. and their contributions to the city's palates. Nevertheless, admit that for the most part, Dallas Italian food remains second-rank.
Which is odd, because Italian food has overwhelmed the American dining scene in recent years; in this country there are more restaurants that serve Italian food than almost any other single cuisine, and Italian dishes are making their way onto the menus of completely non-Italian restaurants. Generally, it's impossible to avoid pasta. Linguine has even slithered its way onto the table at restaurants specializing in famously chauvinistic French cuisine--as Parmigiano Reggiano and risotto have pushed Brie and quiche right off the table. And some Chinese restaurants have taken to calling their noodles "pasta." Still, the sad fact is, though there are several excellent, high-end Italian restaurants in Dallas, dependably good, neighborhood Italian restaurants are still discouragingly scarce. I know. I've been looking.
Take Nero's Italian, for instance. A pretty hip place when it opened, with a style beyond the red-checks-expected, and an edge that made it a natural fit for its neighborhood (the then very hot Lower Greenville Avenue). Nero's served an ambitious, vividly flavored menu, ahead of its time, before Italian was trendy. Then Greenville cooled (it's just now starting to warm up again), and Nero's was absorbed by the Momo's group, a minichain of Italian restaurants that has grown from the seed of a single, family-owned cafe in an unchic location west of Forest Lane. Momo's is known for good food and grumpy service--maybe that partially explains my past few visits to Nero's, where our waiter seemed resentful of our presence.
Its dark-red walls and dim lighting still combine to make Nero's a relaxing, intimate little place, and there are great Godfather touches like the gilded saints that hold the lamps in the step-up booths. But the opera background music is now leavened with soft pop tunes, and the blackboard on the wall lists not-so-very specials. And the food on my past few visits has all been spectacularly bland.
Nero's once was famous for its "pink garlic bread" and Caesar salad--that was, however, before Caesar salad became a drive-through option and "bruschetta" became part of our vocabulary. Now it just seems embarrassingly affected to call something "pink garlic bread." The Caesar salad may indeed have 19 ingredients, as the menu promises it does, but you can't taste any of them. Instead, the salad is doused with just enough heavy dressing to drown out the fresh taste of the lettuce. Who needs 19 ingredients to make a Caesar salad, anyway? If Nero's substituted garlic for about 15 of those ingredients and anchovies for a couple more, it would have something besides a bowl of wet lettuce. The "pink garlic bread," diagonal slices of puffy commercial Italian bread topped with tomatoes and some melted mozzarella, was like toaster-oven pizza--a dish that seemed great when we were just learning.
Pasta is a great medium for strong flavors--its very mildness should inspire freewheeling invention in the kitchen, its delicacy of flavor challenge the cook to concoct a topping that complements without overwhelming. But the pastas we tried at Nero's were undersauced and underseasoned, and the pasta itself was flavorless. Rigatoni Vesuviana sounded good: It called for "chunky tomatoes," "lots" of fresh basil and garlic, and cubes of mozzarella--a dish that should have packed all the good flavors of late summer into a single dish, and all the ingredients were present and accounted for. Unfortunately, they didn't taste like anything. The tomatoes were watery, the basil was sweet, the garlic was vague. We tried linguine fra diavolo, the devil's brother's dish, vaunted as "Nero's most popular dish for 10 years." I've cursed dishes labeled diavolo before for blistering my taste buds, and I dislike food that's macho hot, but this was way wimpy. Not even the devil's baby would claim this unpeppered pap.
In contrast, Alfredo's Cafe, not far from Nero's, is unpretentious neighborhood Italian dining, although its neighborhood is largely Hispanic, not Italian. It's in an unlikely location on the pie-slice corner of Henderson and McMillan that used to house a rundown cigarette and beer store. A little cafe, the tables laid with red cloths, Alfredo's pays some bills by stocking a supply of cold wine and beer and delivering pizza and party trays. But the kitchen turns out a full-scale Italian menu and serves surprisingly good wines by the glass. And the food is mostly good, but maybe it gains a slight edge because the appearance of the place doesn't encourage your expectations. It's an anomaly, you figure, to be served these thick, crusted slices of good bread with your wine; you had every right to expect commercial white bread, soft-textured stuff loaded with propionate, molded into a long loaf and disguised as an Italian loaf. Then, when you taste these spinach balls--wads of spinach and ricotta seasoned with nutmeg, poached, and served with a lightly cooked tomato sauce--you're definitely and pleasantly surprised. The toasted ravioli is fine, too, at least on first bite, the crumbed and crisp morsels stuffed with mystery meat, with more marinara (don't get tired of it yet) to dip them in. But they cool quickly, and then the pasta squares turn rubbery and tough.
There's no subtlety on this menu. Manicotti, barely blanketed with melted cheese, is made with thick, clumsy sheets of pasta instead of delicate crépes, so the light, dry ricotta filling crumbles to bits by the time your fork is forced through the doughy tube. Yet more marinara moistens and melds the parts together, and actually the final flavor is good, though the texture is heavy-handed. An enormous block of lasagna, the pasta sheets solidly welded together with sticky ground veal and cheese, relies on more of that marinara, and again heft and density are the dish's hallmarks. But service is warm and friendly.
Further north, Popolo's nicely serves its neighborhood around Preston Royal. It is packed after parent events at local schools, full all week with ladies lunching, and tightly booked on weekend evenings. The bakery in the back sells the breads and desserts you eat in the restaurant. The food, especially the pizza, is dependably good, and the atmosphere is one of successful confidence, but not arrogance--the staff is happy to see you without a reservation. The Preston Royal location, with its glassed-in garden room, central, wood-burning oven, and freestanding booths, maintains its balance between chic and comfortable, but the newer Addison location, called Popolo's Bistro, topples.
It could be just, you know, the neighborhood. On the evenings we ate there, Popolo's Bistro has had that unmistakable, Addison feel:The tables around us were full of overdressed people, many of whom, judging by their accents, had just moved here. And the interior has that hopefully Tuscan look of bleached wood and stone by which future archaeologists certainly will be able to date the surrounding ruins. This is a look that will inspire the comment "it's so '90s" as surely as avocado green and harvest gold remind you of white go-go boots. It didn't help that we were given an extremely cool reception at the front desk by a high-heeled hostess who was far too busy with the important responsibility of stuffing the night's special list into the menu to attend to any interruptions like diners. She finally showed us to a table in the back, which we refused, and then seated us right at the front in a high-traffic zone. Better than a dead end, but she lost some points. Our waiter made up for her coolness with his aim-to-please attitude.
The food at Popolo's Bistro was as good as its southern sibling's--mostly simple, no-tricks stuff. You can have your choice from the grill--fish, chicken, vegetables--with your choice of sauce. A house specialty, lamb shanks, was prepared like osso bucco, slow-simmered until the vegetables dissolved. The tower of tall food came bedded in a rice dish that was not the risotto it claimed to be, but did accomplish the job of damming the brown-sauce moat around the shanks, whose tender meat slid off the bone in great hunks.
There is a nice selection of complicated salads, and the one we tried, the Mediterranean, was excellent. The enormous plateful of greens (plenty for two) was mixed with black olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and feta cheese. ("Mediterranean" is restaurant code for "feta.") Of course, Popolo's tries to cloud the issue by labeling its food Mediterranean rather than Italian. Mediterranean (meaning "feta," remember, and, by the way, occasionally "couscous," too) food is a vaguer idea, raising looser expectations. (So maybe I'm on the wrong track even looking for neighborhood Italian food--maybe I should be looking for neighborhood Mediterranean food.) But Popolo's is known for its pizza, putting it squarely in the Italian category, if via California. Anyway, its reputation is earned: Our crisp-edged pie was dolloped first with two deep-flavored pestos, one of basil and one of sun-dried tomatoes, then with white droppings of goat cheese. Crisscrossed scallions latticed the top.
Good, but not so much Italian as Italianesque. Like so much in Dallas, this food has style, but no soul. The notes are right, but there's no resonance. You'd think we'd be eating some pretty good Italian food by now in Dallas, the city that loves to eat out, that we'd have learned something since the pasta explosion of the '80s, and that diners and kitchens throughout the city would be well-versed in, and well-fed with, Italian food, just because practice should make perfect, even in the absence of culture. In New York, every neighborhood has its own good little Italian restaurant. (The whole city could disappear except for your block, and you could still buy milk, pastrami, Gap jeans, and Tylenol, have your dry cleaning done, and eat some decent linguine.) Not so in Dallas. Our neighborhoods have their own little Mexican restaurants, thank God, but a really good pasta is still hard to find.
Popolo's, 707 Preston Royal Shopping Center, 692-5497. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Popolo's the Bistro, 1401 Preston at Plano Parkway, 713-0383. Open for lunch daily, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Nero's Italian, 2104 Greenville Avenue, 826-6376. Open Sunday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.
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Alfredo's Cafe, 1924 North Henderson, 823-6050. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-12 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Pink Garlic Bread $3.95
Nero's Famous Caesar $5.25
Rigatoni Vesuviana $9.95
Spinach Balls $4.50
Two Pesto Pizza $8.95
Mediterranean Salad $6.95
Lamb Osso Bucco $17.95