Recent food news has made much fanfare of the opening of Michelin-awarded chef Jose Andres’ new restaurant, Zaytinya, in Frisco’s The Star. Opening a little more quietly in early March was a fine-dining neighbor that comes from the same Turkish hospitality group, called “d.ream." Italian concept Da Mario and Zaytinya are the international company’s first restaurant ventures in the United States, and if there’s one descriptor Da Mario is attempting to achieve, it is authentic.
Dinner guests will know they’ve arrived at a place a bit more bona fide than Macaroni Grill upon receiving a "buona sera" greeting from a host facing a wine cellar stocked with nearly 300 Italian imports. Tables draped in white tablecloths line the Texas-sized formal dining room in an art-deco-inspired interior with geometric patterns and clean lines.
Cushy semicircular booths provide views of a partially open kitchen with two wood-burning ovens. One is dedicated to Neapolitan-style pizzas and the other to cooking chef Luigi Iannuario’s meats that are wet-aged for 28 days and dry-aged for 30.
There’s also a rare, high-end Josper oven. It’s the Rolls Royce of ovens, a toy that only the swankiest chefs get to use, with a retail price of around $25,000. The convection-charcoal hybrid oven will make you stop wondering why it's so special upon tasting one of the side dishes (all $12) that are prepared in it. Cruciferous veggies such as the cavolfiore picante, spicy cauliflower, or the broccolo romanesco broccoli draped with salty anchovies are particularly suited to its magical cooking powers that render the slightly burnt crispness of roasted vegetables without the interior mushiness that sometimes entails.
Naturally, there’s a lot on the menu that’s imported from Italy. Culatello ($20), on the cured meats portion of the menu, is a highly prized Italian salumi prepared in the foggy city of Zibello. The climate lends itself to aging sweet and fragrant meat taken from the muscular parts of a pig’s back legs.
As for pizza, Da Mario follows the regulations of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana but has yet to be awarded membership. The only official Vera Pizza Napoletana provider in Dallas is Cane Rosso, which is tough competition — especially with a new location in The Star, just a few yards away. Da Mario’s pizzas are slightly more expensive but still worth trying.
San Marzano tomatoes and Campania buffalo mozzarella are imported for the old-world pies, as true Neapolitan pizzas require. Chef Iannuario brought basil seeds home from Italy to grow this herb. Dough is proofed for 36 hours in wooden boxes to allow for breathing and, after a short time in the wood-burning oven, yields the signature soft, chewy crust with a few pockets of burnt crunch that Neapolitan pizza lovers crave. Toppings lean toward the traditional: margherita, wild fungi and egg, prosciutto and a pancetta-salami.
The daily hand-rolled pastas are the real highlight of a restaurant such as Da Mario. Since the aim is authenticity, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo are omitted. There is flaming table-side fettuccine, however. Prepared in an 80-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano set atop a rolling cart, the fettuccine alla fiamma con tartufo ($28) begins by setting a slightly spicy vodka sauce on fire. After a few minutes of combining the cheese from the wheel with the flaming sauce and fettuccine, the pasta is topped with a generous shaving of black truffles.
Customarily, Italians smell their truffles like sniffing a cork before eating them as a way to whet their appetites for the richness to come, and Iannuario provides the same opportunity during the presentation. The other six pastas on the menu, along with any daily special pastas, can be topped with a shaving of the truffles for an additional $30.
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Despite its insistence on authenticity, the menu caters to American consumers in some small ways. Salads are presented before appetizers as suggested starters, yet in the traditional Italian meal structure, salads are served just before dessert. There’s also a Caesar salad on the menu with made-to-order anchovy dressing although Italian-American chef Caesar Cardini invented the ubiquitous Caesar salad in Tijuana, Mexico.
The term “authenticity” is increasingly being challenged when it comes to describing food in America. Famous New York restaurateur David Chang says in his new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, that he views authenticity “like a totalitarian state” that’s come to be overvalued. Iannuario, a Milanese chef with a thick accent, believes, on the other hand, that “everything should be done in its fullness, using artisanal methods” to preserve the long history of Italian food.
To experience those methods is going to require full bank account, but as Texas' fourth-highest income-per-capita location, Collin County may be ready for it.
Da Mario, 6655 Winning Dr., Frisco (The Star)