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No place like home

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One exciting night at Cafe Expresso, the patrons sat politely, patiently smiling, ordering more wine and more foccacia while their dinner took as long as 45 minutes to arrive from the kitchen. At another establishment, these people might have walked out--might have lost it, might never have returned--but this is their place and they all spoke knowingly, repeating to one another the frazzled waiter's explanation for the delay: "Chef's on vacation; Dieter's in the kitchen."

Dieter Paul isn't usually in the kitchen, but this is his restaurant. He opens the door for you and greets you when you arrive and he sees you out. He visits each table. He does what needs to be done.

Cafe Expresso is the favorite secret of certain Dallasites, the ones who live near this cusp of Park Cities and Preston Hollow, the ones who prefer discreet service and dependability to flash and dash, the ones who come in their Lincolns and Mercedeses. Dieter knows them all, speaks to them by name. They all know each other, and though table-hopping is not a dignified enough term, they greet and chat and mention the club, the store, the church, the kids--the things they have in common.

During lunch, there is a cafeteria line. Dinner is relaxed and refined, despite the storefront and the sneezeguards. Tablecloths are snowy white, and there is a long list of wines by the glass. You can order whatever shape of pasta you prefer and top it with whatever sauce you like.

The foccacia bread is thin, with a lacework of glazed parmesan. The bolognese is rich and meaty, nearly stew-like, sweetened with tomato; the arrabiata is spicy, seedy, aromatic. Specials are listed on a discreet dry-erase board: tender veal scallops with chewy nuggets of rich crawfish and a richer brown brandy sauce came with wafer-thin scalloped potatoes dusted with nutmeg. Bright spinach tortelloni was tossed with hearts of palm, pancetta, zucchini--no sauce, just a light film of olive oil to bind the flavors together. Baked pasta--lasagna, manicotti--comes in its own casserole, bubbling hot. And always, the earnest waiter in horn-rimmed glasses and Dieter himself fetch and carry conscientiously, taking drink orders, filling glasses, bringing bread.

You don't have to live in the neighborhood to appreciate Cafe Expresso. But if we were a city of neighborhoods, it is a neighborhood kind of place for anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood. It's a place people use often, not just for Saturday nights or special occasions, and not just for a fill-up, but the way New Yorkers use restaurants--as a regular respite, an extension of their own homes.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Cafe Expresso, 6135 Luther Lane, 361-6984. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Cafe Expresso:
Il Carpaccio $5.50
Caesar Salad $3
Foccacia Bread $3.50
Spaghetti Bolognese $8.

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