Restaurant Reviews

Head East

The thousands of miles separating Milan from Saigon are hardly felt just east of downtown Dallas. Natives call the neighborhood Old East Dallas or Little Asia, the developers building $350,000 townhouses a couple of blocks away call it the Upper East Side, but Italian restaurateur Alessio Franceschetti calls it his new home.

The reincarnation of Alessio's il Ristorante four months ago at the corner of Bryan and Fitzhugh streets is a world away from its Highland Park birthplace at Lemmon Avenue and Lomo Alto Drive, but the new neighbor brings with him a taste of northern Italy and class and elegance to boot.

If you're not familiar with the neighborhood, a word of caution: It ain't exactly pretty. But those in the know are well aware of the hidden gems at just about every corner. There is the East Dallas Community and Market Garden at Bryan and Fitzhugh just next to Jimmy's Food Store, the Italian grocery Dallas foodies flock to for homemade meatballs and Italian wine. Across the street is Mai's, home of some of the best Vietnamese food around, and another block over, Bangkok City serves Thai so good that you'll forget you're in Texas.

And now there's Alessio's.

A maroon awning with "Alessio's il Ristorante" delicately scripted across the bottom marks the small, nondescript strip center that the restaurant anchors. With a barber shop next door and an insurance agent two doors down, the awning is about the only object of interest on the building's façade.

My first visit was on a Wednesday during lunch, and I don't know if it was the terra-cotta-colored walls or the gladiolas next to the guest sign-in book or the servers who were smiling at us when we walked in, but whatever the reason, Alessio's was instantly endearing.

Perhaps it was Alessio himself.

Like a good host, he welcomed us in that Euro-friendly kind of way--cordial but not overly sappy--to his establishment and handed us menus; the graphic on the front was a brightly colored square with a picture of him in his younger years in each quadrant. I liked the guy already.

Franceschetti's culinary skills were honed as a young man as he moved about the world. Fluent in five languages, Franceschetti grew up in Milan, but life and travel took him from Germany to Geneva to Manchester to Bermuda, and after a quick stint in Atlanta, he landed in Dallas. That was 1977. Before opening the original Alessio's in 1983, he made the rounds at the likes of Lombardi's, Antares (atop Reunion Tower) and the now defunct Lancer's Club. In 1999, he shut down Alessio's, did some catering on the side and then went to work for The Loon in Uptown.

But it wasn't long before he wanted to open his own restaurant again, and this March, that's what he did.

When you first walk into Alessio's you know that it is not going to be your run-of-the-mill, Italian-chain dining experience. Your first clue is the small, cozy dining room. While we were there, a light lunch crowd whispered across spacious tables covered with brown paper layered over black tablecloths. Our server brought us bread and a plate of fresh mortadella, a finely ground, heat-cured pork sausage flavored with lard pieces and spices, along with a pepper and a cherry tomato.

Indicative of the attention we received the entire time we were there, Franceschetti came over to help when he saw me struggling to crack open our fresh bottle of olive oil.

A dry-erase board on an easel spelled out the lunch specials, but we started with the gnocchi just to get our taste buds warmed up. Some of the potato dumplings were perfect--pillowy and consistently textured throughout--others were a little tough, but the Gorgonzola cream sauce covering them was whisked to perfection.

For lunch, I decided on the ahi tuna in a pesto cream sauce, and my companion had the cannelloni fiorentini. The tuna was perfectly pink on the inside and light brown on the outside, and that pesto cream sauce drizzled over it provided the perfect complement with a smooth, creamy zing. A small side of rigatoni and snow peas was served with my entrée.

My companion's cannelloni was equally satisfying. It was stuffed full with ground veal and covered in a rich marinara and béchamel sauce--Italian comfort food at its best.

The tiramisu we had for dessert was good but not impressive. It was a little dry and lacked that fluffiness that makes good tiramisu fun.

Two days later I visited Alessio again, this time for dinner. By 6:30 p.m., the parking lot was already full but mainly because of the barber shop next door. It was packed with neighborhood teenagers getting their wigs split for the weekend, and their presence was made known at Alessio's. For a while, the windows shook hard with each boom of the subwoofers in the cars pulling in and out of the drive. The Alessio's patrons who were unaccustomed to the sounds of the 'hood looked confused.

Speaking of the patrons, Alessio's has maintained a loyal following from his days on Lomo Alto. The crowd was very Highland Park-ish, but Franceschetti says he also has a strong Jewish clientele that comes from North Dallas, as well as downtown dwellers and folks from right around the neighborhood and Lakewood. The dining room was more than half full.

Again, we were greeted with ready smiles and immediately seated. Doug, our waiter, was attentive and careful to explain in great detail the night's specials. He checked on us regularly, but our courses were served in that leisurely, unrushed, food-is-about-friends-and-fellowship kind of way that you're most likely to find in eateries outside of the States.

This time we started with calamari served with a marinara sauce and a Caesar salad. Both were tasty but were ridiculously outshined by our entrées. For dinner, I chose the crab lasagna, and my companion selected the bistecca al Gorgonzola, a 12-ounce New York strip with a Gorgonzola and Barolo wine sauce.

With each bite we looked at each other in silent astonishment.

The crab lasagna was layer upon layer of pasta and tons of shredded crabmeat infused with the same marinara and béchamel cream sauce that had accompanied the cannelloni. The steak was well-prepared, but it was the Gorgonzola and Barolo sauce that packed the punch with its smooth red wine base invigorated by the cheese.

We ended the evening with a cappuccino pie--a decadent coffee-flavored ice cream with a creamy chocolate top layer garnished with strawberry halves.

Alessio's also has a decent selection of wine.

Alessio's is value-priced. Lunch entrées range from about $9 to $18 and dinner generally falls between $9 and $25 for an entrée. 4801 Bryan St. No. 100, 214-824-2200. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. $$

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Stephanie Morris