There’s a wine called “The Gambler” on offer at Patrizio, Uptown’s newest Italian restaurant. The Gambler isn’t an especially good glass of wine, but it is a good mascot for the eatery, since Patrizio’s food, drinks, service and even the bill are a roll of the dice. One moment you’re so delighted you want to become a regular; a course later you may vow never to return.
A staple of Highland Park society dining for decades, Patrizio takes its name from the Italian word for “patrician,” denoting ancient Roman aristocracy, Renaissance-era bourgeoisie and their modern-day successors at the top of the pecking order. The restaurant made a home in Highland Park Village for 25 years until its landlord declined to renew its lease earlier this year. Patrizio followed its target audience south in May, to elegant new digs on the ground floor of One McKinney Plaza. In the process, the restaurant brought on chef Ryan Carbery to update the sometimes-tired menu of Italian-American classics.
Carbery’s tweaks have been productive, with inventive new dishes and stylish platings joining the spaghetti-and-meatballs staples. Much of the food is legitimately great, but knowing what to order is hard, because the menu is dotted with failings too.
The appetizers preview inconsistencies to come. A blandly tomato-ey minestrone, in need of salt, pepper and greens, contrasts with tiny, boldly hot peppers stuffed with provolone and prosciutto. In one single batch, our calamari wavered from perfection to chewy and overcooked, while a well-dressed Tuscan white bean salad, with green onions and Parmesan, arrived with still-crunchy beans.
The crostini, coated in salt and pepper, are as addicting as chips. They feature in very good tomato-basil bruschetta and alongside Patrizio’s best appetizer, oven-baked goat cheese. With great goat cheese and quality capers, how can you go wrong?
Patrizio knows how to prepare good pasta, much of it made in-house. Linguine nero pairs inky noodles with a generous helping of mussels, though it’s an acquired taste because the sauce is awfully strong on red pepper. A bowl of taglierini arrives with tasty, properly cooked Parmesan-crusted shrimp. Meaty traditional lasagna, big enough for two, is hearty and soul satisfying, even reheated the next day. There is one pasta misfire: fettuccine Pappagano, a good carbonara with fried pancetta crumbles that’s overwhelmed by a lake of cream sauce.
Pizzas are a specialty at Patrizio, as signaled by their perverse misspelling, “apizz.” “Why do they call it apizz?” we asked the waiter. He admitted he didn’t know: “I think it’s an Italian thing. It’s what the Italians call it, maybe.” (If you order pizza to go, are you taking apizz?) Fennel-sausage pizza, with roasted peppers and pine nuts, is as tasty as it sounds but could do with more sausage, and you can find crispier, more flavorful crust at a half-dozen places around Dallas.
Nightly specials allow chef Carbery and his crew to spread their wings and fly. Saturday’s is beef short rib braised in barolo and served atop polenta. It’s the ultimate winter food, flavorful meat pulling apart under your fork, an arugula garnish adding textural contrast. The polenta, made with pecorino romano, is if anything too cheesy, but gravy and mushrooms work in counterpoint, balancing one excess with another. Divine.
Dessert brings out both the best and worst in Patrizio. On one visit, the tiramisu sang with all the right flavors, delighted with its texture and luxuriated in a joyous amount of booze. Ours vanished within seconds under attack from every fork at the table. But on the next visit, our waiter came out to apologize for the tardiness of our desserts, saying, “We have a wood-fired oven, with real wood in it, to add smokiness. So it’s taking a little longer, like an Italian family dinner. So imagine we’re your family.” Cue awkward chuckles.
Not only was this patronizing, it was also bizarre. Carrot cake does not usually get smoked in an oven, and indeed it was not. At least the charming pear almond cake was served warm, unlike the bread pudding. Patrizio’s bread pudding needs to be heated because otherwise all you can think about is its gummy, unpleasant texture.
Between our visits, Patrizio redesigned its cocktail menu. The old version had inventive Italianate drinks, like a negroni made with pomegranate and a “Godfather Smash.” Those are gone now, replaced by standards like an “old-fashion” (maybe a typo, maybe not). There’s a good cosmo with freshly squeezed blood orange, but otherwise the menu has been stripped of creativity.
The wine list is short, free of vintage labels and light on Italian wines, but every wine is available by the glass. Beware of upselling: After we handed back our menus, our waiter suggested a cabernet, not telling us that one glass costs $17.22. (Spec’s has the bottle for $24.) Our waiter also suggested a malbec that “just arrived straight from Italy,” which is an odd journey for a wine from Argentina.
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Luckily, a Sicilian nero d’avola, Poggio Anima “Asmodeus,” satisfied our table and, as a fairly light-bodied red, harmonized with almost all the food. It’s also inexpensive at $38.41. But it was brought to our table warmer than room temperature, as if it had been stored next to the stove.
Perhaps insecure about itself, Patrizio’s menu is dotted with attention-craving oddities. Half of the appetizers are labeled “Mozzarella Bar,” though only one contains mozzarella. Numerous menu items are misspelled, including linguine, fettuccine, taglierini, diavolo, limoncello and, of course, “apizz.” Each price ends with a random number of cents, prompting our table to wonder if they reflect an exact percent markup. Mind-games ensue. This drink is 30 cents more than that one. Is it better?
You can have a phenomenal meal at Patrizio, it’s true. Come on a Saturday, start with the goat cheese dip, order the barolo short rib, taglierini or lasagna, then finish with tiramisu. They’re all delicious, and you’ll leave thinking this is one of the very best Italian restaurants in Dallas.
But there are three hurdles to overcome if you want to love this restaurant. One is its superiority complex, from the odd prices to the staff who correct your pronunciation of tiramisu. Another is the gamble of ordering your food. Only the pasta dishes appear to be safe bets.
The last problem is the bill. Our “apizz” was overcharged $1 and our Saturday short rib special was overcharged by a whopping $7; our server blamed “the computer.” There is definitely good pasta at Uptown’s patricianly Italian hangout. But it comes with a side dish of pretension, and until Patrizio stops using HAL 9000 to tally orders, you may want to request a menu with your check.