Restaurant Reviews

Fashionable dining

I was invited to a "cutting of the cheese" party last weekend. Obviously, the teenager inside my friend Mickey named the event, but Mickey the man was grown-up enough to realize that he'd spent hundreds of dollars a year (in $16 dollar-a-pound or so increments) on imported Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese and that it would be substantially less expensive to buy a whole wheel and cut his own (or, Tom Sawyer-like, invite his friends to cut it). So we did, scoring the 80-pound cylinder, then driving tiny paring knives (in Italy they use parmesan wedges) into the cheese along the score, and finally driving in a chef's knife halfway down the blade. It's like stone-cutting--the cheese split by itself along the line.

Buying that wheel was a smart move. Mickey got a better deal on the best cheese in the world, plus he threw a great party, plus he made a lot of good friends better. But food, like love, doesn't generally inspire intelligent planning. (That fact alone explains the prevalence of brewpubs.) For one thing, it takes arrogance bordering on hubris to believe that your restaurant will succeed when over half that open fail. The owners of Isola Gozo, the restaurant that replaced Piccola Cucina when you were looking the other way, seem smarter than average, but that's because they are also the landlords, so their goal was simple. They had no need to make a statement via cuisine or imprint their own personality on a restaurant or convert the world to their particular gastronomy. Nature's got nothing on landlords when it comes to abhorring a vacuum, and Nancy Nasher and her husband, owners of NorthPark, just wanted that empty space filled.

Piccola Cucina was owned by Pino Luongo, himself a pretty smart fellow--he opened Le Madri (The Mothers), in New York, with an irresistible gimmick: From time to time he imported real Italian mamas to man the kitchen. Who's gonna pan mom's own cooking? Several other New York restaurants followed; pairing up Piccola Cucina with Barneys in several cities seemed like a good idea, too, and the only less-than-perspicacious move Pino Luongo's made that I've heard about is when he engaged in a bidding war with Dallasite Jack Knox for the tattered collection of Sfuzzi restaurants. (Wisely, he lost.) It also seemed wise for Pino to pitch Piccola when the Barneys boat started rocking.

Manager Richard Choe was with Piccola Cucina when it closed abruptly one Saturday evening and was still there when the restaurant reopened as Isola Gozo (named after an island near Malta, in case you wondered) within the month. With very little fanfare, Gianni Scappin, a New York chef, was imported to consult on the menu and give it a wider Mediterranean flair, but the restaurant's actual chef stayed the same, as did most of the staff.

Really, unless you read the menu very carefully, you may not even notice that anything has changed. The room is certainly the same, and the menu seems about the same. What's to notice? The popular shaved artichoke and parmesan salad is gone, but Isola Gozo retains Piccola Cucina's emphasis on the oven, so the best dishes remain bread-based or labeled "al forno." The menu is more serious in the evening; at lunch it's still the charge brigade's break room. The menu is appealing, but carefully constructed so it doesn't require you to break your shopping stride. To that end, there are thin-crust pizzas, lots of salads, and sandwiches.

The front page of Isola Gozo's menu defines "panini" for you--anxious to let you know that, although the word "sandwich" (for that is what "panini" are) has disappeared from the lexicon of fashionable lunching the same way "a la king" and "patty shell" have, "panini" are different. "Panini" are acceptable because not only are they "healthy" and "Mediterranean" (to quote the menu), they also require "special equipment." So, by ordering a single sandwich, you are touching on three basic food trends, proving you are firmly in the flow of fashion. Important, when you're eating at Barneys. Since shopping and dining are Dallas' primary recreations--we eat out more than people in any other city and we have more square feet per person of shopping space than people in any other city--the intersection of the two is particularly happy. The combination on my panini Siciliana made me happy. Lightly oiled slices of eggplant, the purple-brown skin like soft leather, and surprisingly ripe tomato were glued together with fresh melted mozzarella between crusty slices of bread. The special "grill-like" pressing equipment seems to accomplish the same sort of thing a spatula does in the hands of a short order cook making a grilled cheese. By repeatedly mashing down on the bread, the ingredients lose their separate identities and become more convincingly a single entity. Conversely, the pizza, thin-crusted and crisp-edged, even blackened a little on its rim, allowed its toppings more individuality than does the usual pie, on which everything from pineapple to pepperoni is subsumed by tomato and cheese. Our excellent pizza capricciosa, topped with quartered artichokes, wedges of pepper, mushrooms and tomatoes, was laced together with just enough mozzarella to leave its components distinct.

Pasta entrees are not as good as the rest of the food, except for the lasagna of the day. Farfalline con salmone was coated in a sticky white sauce flavored with strong, fishy salmon and studded with pasty pale peas. Fettucine aglio, olio e pomodoro wound ribbons of pasta around crushed tomatoes seasoned with minty fresh basil--light, yes, but also somewhat lightweight. Salads, though we missed our cheese and artichokes, were a delight. Orange-zested beets lay buried under a pile of leaves, garnished with creamy, lemony goat cheese and toasted walnuts. The "Crescentina" doesn't sound like a salad on the menu, but it could as fairly be labeled that as "antipasti." Thin wedges of crusty pizza bread are filled with sliced, oiled vegetables and smoky provolone, then heaped with a sheerly dressed salad of baby greens. It's my pick for the perfect plate on the menu if you really want something light but satisfying. The "Isola Gozo" salad was, I suppose, an example of the new menu's Mediterranean stress; anywhere else the plate of romaine, tomato, artichoke, cucumber, sweet onion, and snowy feta could have been accurately called a "Greek" salad, although there were only four olives at compass points of the plate. Maybe that's why it was attributed to the Maltese island in NorthPark instead.

There are, I was informed, plans to expand Isola Gozo: whether into Barneys or in other locations, I wasn't told. And only hindsight can tell us if that's a smart move.

Isola Gozo, NorthPark, (214) 691-0488. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-6 p.m.

Isolo Gozo:
Crescentina $7.00
Di Barbe e Caprino $8.00
Siciliana Panini $6.50
Capricciosa Pizza $9.50
Fettucine Aglio, Olio e Pomodoro $9.50

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