All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Whether you like it or not, lunch and dinner at Prego Pasta House begin with 50 shades of green. They must. It’s the wet iceberg lettuce salad that you’ve had for decades. Campisi’s does it; it has served this salad for far longer than the word “millennial” existed. Scalini’s serves it, too.
You know it already: wintergreen iceberg leaves sopped with olive oil and vinegar, shiny green olives tumbling around with a peperoncino pepper or two, and cakes of Parmesan. The green salad is one of the strangest consistencies in Americanized Italian joints, just like it is at this 35-year-old spot on Lower Greenville. Prego’s flavor profile, for better or worse, is somehow timeless and '80s all at once.
Waiters are in crisp white shirts and ties. White tablecloths and wavy-cut paper place settings greet each diner. I’m in the unchanged dining room around lunchtime. The light fixture that hangs from the ceiling nearly grazes my hair as though people were shorter in 1982 when Prego opened. The ubiquitous green salad drops in front of me, and I can’t help but think we’re one weird food truck away from this salad emerging at a new bar, cheffed-up with house croutons or something.
Looking around the restaurant, you’ll see that things are the same as always at Prego. You’ll still find flat-crust pizza, crab claws bobbing around in butter and wine, and Joe Barraco suited up neatly behind the bar. At 83, both he and his wife run the place (both of their parents were born in Italy; they’re second-generation), just like they did in ‘82, and they have three sons. Their recipes come from their parents, and their parents before them, which dates the ingredient list back at least a couple hundred years.
“We’ve been here,” Joe Barraco says in that tone that truly sounded like it could have been subtitled with we’ll always be here. “It wasn’t the best location in the world because of the parking.”
Thirty-five years ago this month, the Barracos took ownership of what was then a lounge spot serving a few sandwiches and some drinks, and simply adapted it into a family restaurant. Since then, it’s been a spaghetti and meatballs spot that’s wholly ignored any semblance of a trend. They'll probably pass it on to their sons, Barraco tells me casually.
Sitting in the dining room — the layout is the same as it ever was — you won’t see farm-to-table squash blossoms in front of anyone. You will see thin-crust pizzas cut into strips, meatballs smothered in tomato sauce and a sidekick of sliced Italian bread. Individually wrapped Land-o-Lakes butter rectangles, a huge handful of them, sit in a bowl next to the bread; this will never be a place to dive into housemade butter. There's something comforting about that.
The Barraco family meatballs have been a hit since Prego opened. The spheres of ground beef, oregano, garlic and Parmesan are made every morning. They’re tender and best devoured as a main entree with nothing but a fork. This is my advice: Ignore the trappings and just meatball it. The tomato sauce is pasty, crimson, sweet.
“No matter how small you are, if you stay consistent, you can hold onto your business,” Joe Barraco says. “We’re just really stuck to our old-fashioned ways."
Consistent is Prego’s last name. It's still got veal with lemon butter and a white wine cream sauce, dishes that you’ll only find in pre-internet Italian spots and shrimp scampi. You can still get crab claws a la carte. The pizza is hot and the crust is crunchy. It could use a faster blister in the oven. The sauce is thick and sugary, the crust’s bottom heavily dusted with flour. The Barracos know their customers; they’ve been regulars since the place opened.
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One of the only changes at Prego is the chicken-fried steak. A regular mentioned its beloved status, so Barraco and crew went into the kitchen, fixed up a sirloin strip, breaded and fried it, and ladled it with a fresh cream gravy. It’s been a popular off-menu item for nearly two years.
“They love our gravy,” Barraco says, "even though we’re an Italian place.”
After all, what’s more Italian than sweating over the food that your guest loves? Shouldn't that bring comfort? It certainly is, whether you like it or not, just like Prego, uniquely Dallas-Italian.
Prego Pasta House, 4930 Greenville Ave.