Foremost among the many charms of Lucia, the homey Italian bistro that's riveted local food lovers since it opened in Oak Cliff late last year, is the restaurant's singularity. Eaters may swoon over chef David Uygar's expert salumi or front-of-the-house deaconess Jennifer Uygar's twinkle-eyed warmth, but neither food nor service can account for the multiple-week wait most diners seeking reservations are forced to endure.
What's most captivating about Lucia is the realization that the restaurant couldn't be easily re-created anywhere else. Lucia's specialness isn't embedded in its Django Reinhardt soundtrack or magnificent chicken liver antipasti: It springs from the two very specific talents behind it, a welcome rarity in Dallas.
A very different model's at work at La Fiorentina, a Tuscan steakhouse from inexhaustible restaurateur Alberto Lombardi that opened around the same time as Lucia. Here, the restaurant and its risk-adverse menu have been purged of any hint of real, live people behind the venture. Tuscan cuisine can be a thrillingly wooly affair, with its earthy meats and hearty vegetables, but the food at La Fiorentina is disappointingly tame: The restaurant has Auto-Tuned beef and tomatoes. Even the inviting dining room's so wearyingly generic that it takes a few beats for the feeling of familiarity to register.
What's more immediately jolting is the pricing, far more appropriate for a restaurant connected to a casino, where diners could conceivably pay for $39 oven-baked shrimp with their roulette winnings, than an eatery designed to look like a farmhouse.
For the price of La Fiorentina's signature porterhouse, you could buy tickets to half the movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year. Is it fair to play cross-genre games of economics? Of course not, but it may still be instructive: All those big-name directors have mastered the art of delivering a memorable product. What emerges from La Fiorentina's kitchen is merely aggravating, starting with the forlorn, flavorless bread that the restaurant dares to put before every diner.
The first serving of bread I had at La Fiorentina was generously toasted, leading me to think an enterprising staffer had tried to revive a stale loaf. But the bread I had on my second visit wasn't much better: My server spritzed it with olive oil and I ravished it with salt from a tabletop cellar, but it was impossible to transcend the sensation of munching on insulation.
Presumably La Fiorentina would prefer its guests focus instead on the starters with price tags attached or spend the pre-entrée interlude admiring the décor. La Fiorentina's Italy occupies the same Europe as Rise No. 1's France: The walls have a faux-stucco finish, the slat-backed wooden chairs are padded with sunny yellow cushions and the white tablecloths are bordered in terracotta-colored flowers. Exposed Edison bulbs, which occasionally emit an insistent, wind-up toy buzz, shed a vintage light on the mocha leather banquette set against the front windows. With its painted sideboards and homespun-style curtains, the room's just a full-bosomed beauty short of being a World War II serviceman's fondest fantasy.
And service doesn't detract from the restaurant's surface warmth: Both of my servers were capable and professional, correctly handling pesky situations that routinely trip up servers who've been sent out to the floor without proper training. When the bar was out of a wine I requested, my server didn't just return with the bad news. He came bearing a sample of the wine he recommended as an alternative.
Still, neither server did an especially good job of parsing the menu, assuring me every dish was equally good. That's almost never true, but perhaps revealing favorites would betray more personality than is congruent with the La Fiorentina concept. Making my own way through the thicket of expensive dishes, I found few that merited the servers' generalized enthusiasm.
La Fiorentina seems to appeal to women out on Cosmo-drinking "girls' nights" and young couples who've managed to snag babysitters, so shareable appetizers are in demand. A $20 serving of baked clams fits the niche, although I watched a fair number of diners resignedly file orders for a lackluster octet of assorted crostini, obligatorily topped with a waxy heap of lardo (cured pork fat), undistinguished prosciutto, crumbled sausage and tomatoes that tasted canned. The appetizer was so disheartening that my dining companion wondered whether he should pop over to Taverna—Lombardi's competent mainstay next door—for a corrective bruschetta.
Three hefty bones of jiggly veal marrow were better, although the oven-roasted meat didn't have the rich, creamy beefiness that usually lurks in bones. The marrow was plated with a clump of bitter greens ornamented with cherry tomatoes that were fated to reappear anywhere a splash of color was called for.
I was befuddled by a Hubbard squash and chestnut salad, a handsome assemblage of firm horseshoe segments of squash, two strips of crisp bacon, watercress and an oozy scoop of burrata shaped like a catcher's mitt. The salad refused to coalesce, making no more collective sense than the scattered cell phone conversations on a crowded bus. Perhaps a blast of heat might have united the disparate elements. The weak-kneed balsamic vinaigrette certainly wasn't up to the organizational task.
I wish the pasta—sorry, "artisanal, hand-crafted pasta"—section of La Fiorentina's menu was longer. There are only two. I didn't try the tortelloni, but the taglioni, a tangle of subtly crimped noodles the width of a zipper, was pretty impeccable. The oiled taglioni was bedded down with meaty Manila clams and split cherry tomatoes, and dashed with flakes of parsley and crushed red pepper. I'd have happily eaten a much bigger bowl and was pleased to see the pasta reappear with a veal osso bucco.
The osso bucco itself was dry and as bereft in blunt meatiness as the marrow that preceded it. Same went for the lamb chops, which should have been gamier. Overcooking also afflicted a whole roasted branzino, which looked pretty on the plate but had little flavor beneath its crisp, silvery skin. The fish was served with clumsy potato tournes and a useless tuft of roasted leeks.
Sadly, the vaunted steak suffered from the same problems as every other entrée. While the rib-eye I tried wasn't dry, it was cooked a shade past the requested medium rare, and lacked any discernible beef flavor.
Much of the plate, which included little molded potato cupcakes with rosette crowns and strewn Brussels sprout leaves splattered with butter, was taken up by the steak's bone. Its dimensions made the fat, wine-glazed steak look like a cartoonist's rendering of red meat. But there's nothing funny about paying $42 for a forgettable hunk of beef. I suspect very few guests leave the ostentatiously expensive La Fiorentina laughing.