Where's the Boot?

If they run out of firewood at Vino & Basso, they can always burn some of the outdated wine lists.
Peter Calvin

Forty-nine hundred McKinney Avenue has always had an identity problem. Does it really want to be Italian? Or more accurately, will we let it be Italian if it really is? Or is this spot next to a dry cleaner really never meant to be more than a hoagie deli with valet? Near the close of the last century, this address flaunted verve and flavorful sizzle as Toscana. But it flared out.

After Toscana, the locale was revived by former state legislator Alvin Granoff as Eccolo Ristorante and Enoteca. Eccolo wanted to be Italian so badly that it scared the hell out of Dallas, terrorizing its Campisi-conditioned tastes with Italian menu headings, braised tripe, wilted rabe and a wine list assembled by Italian growing regions. Eccolo was recast into Ecco Italia, a move Granoff thought would ease the phobia with lower prices and a name that couldn't as easily be confused with deadly bacteria. It listed and sank.

Vino & Basso faces a similar challenge. It desperately wants to be Italian, what with its Versace-inspired dining nooks, its Milano-imbued crannies, its Italian sidewalk cafe patio and its Italian wine-bar posture. But it's too afraid of scaring the Campisi out of us. So V&B straddles the middle in confusion. Vino is the all-day, all-night Italian wine bar "in a hip yet inviting atmosphere," while Basso is the upscale dinner venue, presumably in an uninviting femur ambience. Let's start with the Italian wine bar. On the wine list I counted 17 California whites to 13 Italian, and 24 California reds to 14 Italian. I also counted 19 whites and 13 reds by the glass--slim pickings for a wine bar and especially one with "Italian" deployed as a modifier.

But then again, these numbers could be bogus, and I could be full of merda, because I was presented with four different wine lists on my junkets. No one seems to have a handle on the inventory. On a visit to Basso, I was presented with a list that had only five or so reds by the glass, the least expensive hitting $20. Worse, the pricing was all over the map. Byron Pinot Noir from California was $25 per glass while the bottle price weighed in at $75. Assuming the standard five pours per bottle, this represents a by-the-glass markup of almost 70 percent over the bottle price. That's fleecing, especially when you consider that most by-the-glass markups average between 25 to 30 percent over posted bottle prices--a gouge in its own right. (A Ruffino Modus 1998 was also listed with the same $25/$75 price ratio, but this was on a different list.)

"It's the only list we have," our server blurted when we alerted him to the skimpiness of the Basso by-the-glass roll. When we pointed out that Basso was attached to a wine bar, he turned up another, slightly better list.

Yet while wine options are scant, the Basso menu offers price choices. You can buy four courses for $45 per person, or you can pluck an appetizer or salad ($12 each), a soup ($8 each) or an entrée ($25 each) followed by dessert ($7) à la carte. Picking and choosing can be expensive, especially when you realize you're paying 12 bucks for installments like the radicchio, frisee and artichoke salad. This turned out to be a minimally dressed grassy knoll in the center of a rectangular plate with very petite artichoke slices tacking down the corners--an uninteresting graze, though there were no brown edges on the greens.

The same $12 gets you a fava bean and asparagus stalk salad with an aged balsamic glaze that is so sweet it makes the Spartan mélange of beans and tips seem like breakfast cereal. Silky crab cake was actually a bubbling spread in a little crock. It was runny instead of cakey and also slightly fishy.

The only salad that lived up to its $12 billing was the sautéed wild mushroom Caesar. Picture this: a long rectangular plate with a long fluffy sheaf of Parmesan-flaked uncut romaine ribs that looked like they were crawling with garden slugs. Placing warm, slithering mushrooms on a Caesar is weird, but ultimately delicious.

This whole place is a weird shift of phase. The parking lot was full on our visit, yet the restaurant and its concomitant wine bar were empty. Are they generating revenue via nearby valet spillover? Basso is well-populated with servers, but they move with the urgency of continental drift. Glasses of wine appear after a growing season, or not at all--understandable as the servers have to cross-reference inventory with an arsenal of wine lists.

Yet the room is simple and beautiful with acres of yellow-washed walls, modern leather-upholstered benches up front and a white fireplace with a scorched mantel near the rear of the dining room.

Entrées creep out after lengthy post-appetizer gaps: Prosciutto-wrapped scallops were painfully salty, hard and dry, as if someone were trying to make little jerky cushions out of them; oven-roasted seafood risotto in an oily port demi had the consistency of aged Elmer's Sno-Drift Paste--it broke off into brittle chunks under the slightest fork pressure; braised beef was dry and old-tasting; and rosemary-marinated buccatini, hoisting a couple of hard, chewy littleneck clams, was so greasy it was hard to keep the pasta on the fork, even if you used the seafood risotto to affix it to the tines. Basso wrapped things up with a "seasoned fruit and mascarpone crisp" that dripped and flowed instead of crunched.

Like Basso, Vino deployed at least two different wine lists plus three menus (one no longer operative, one operative but incomplete and one fully operative) to keep the guesswork fully engaged. In all fairness, the menu discrepancy was blamed on a chef shift (which doesn't explain the shifting wine lists). Opening chef Christopher Adams was recently replaced by Tony Gardizi, who cooked at J. Pier in Terrell as well as Bali Bar. And though the Vino fare has some flaws, it is much better than the Basso bop. Fried calamari was daring in that it was almost exclusively composed of tentacles--now that's Italian. Yet it was hobbled by a coating that was cold and soaked in grease.

Crab and asparagus salad was better, though it was hard to figure. The crab mixture, infiltrated with bits of onion and yellow tomato, wasn't warm or cold, but a degree or two above clammy. The prosciutto and black olive panini was equally peculiar. Cooked tomatoes, cherry and yellow, were slipped between a semi-flattened biscuit along with a couple of halved colossal black olives (why not use Gaeta or kalamata olives instead of the ubiquitous and uninteresting California mission?). But the prosciutto was off to the side, spread over a heap of greens with Parmesan shavings over it. The prosciutto wasn't bad, but why not assemble the whole sandwich and grill it to let all of those flavors merge into a blunted Mediterranean hoagie?

The best item served here is the five-cheese ravioli tiled on the plate under a grilled salmon fillet. The raviolis were a little mushy, but the grilled salmon, well-crusted and pocked with capers, was stupendous: moist, tender and reeking with rich flavor. This is the sort of thing Gardizi excels at if my Bali Bar memories are still functional.

But while Gardizi gets his traction, V&B needs to get a grip on its split personalities. It wants to be a fine dining room. It wants to be a wine bar. It wants to be a street cafe. It wants to be elegant and homey. It wants to be casually chic and Versace decadent. Gad, it wants to be Italian. Trouble is, it takes all of these character traits and carries them only halfway--if that. In an attempt to flaunt multiple personalities, Vino & Basso goes schizoid.

4900 McKinney Ave., 214-520-2242. Vino is open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Sunday. Basso is open for dinner 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$$

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