To say food is in Julian Barsotti's blood would be a preposterous understatement. His grandmother co-owned Carbone's in New Jersey, run by the same family for 92 years. His relatives on his father's side brought along more relatives when they came to the United States so the latter could open a bakery and allow the former not miss out on their favorite Italian breads. Then it was on to the next generation.
"My mom owned a catering company for years here in this building. Food Company," Barsotti explains. He spent a great deal of time in that kitchen growing up. So, the fact that he's a chef at his own successful Italian restaurant, Nonna, despite only being 30, is none too surprising. "It wasn't like all we ate was Italian food. But I have always loved to eat, and I've always been around food. Food is an important part of my family's life. I love Italian cuisine and its narrative and the confluence of those things."
Before opening Nonna and after graduating college, Barsotti headed off to California where he worked for four years at Oakland's Oliveto. He then attended Verace Pizza Napoletana. Run by a government-regulated organization in Italy, it trains cooks in crafting the thin-crust pizza of Naples. After that he decided to return to Dallas, where he was raised. (Mostly, as well as in New Mexico.)
Despite his Dallas upbringing and family connection, Barsotti says, "My perspective [on the Dallas food scene] is a bit as an outsider because I trained in San Francisco. But I think Dallas at heart is definitely an entrepreneurial restaurant city. People have made a lot of money with restaurants here. Since I've been here, there has been a lot of interesting stuff. A good amount of chef-driven ideas that seem to be multiplying."
That pulse of success and positivity runs through everything Barsotti does and says. "I've been back in Dallas for four years and have had the restaurant for three. Things are improving in terms of sourcing. We're heading in the right direction." He pauses for a moment before he adds with a smile, "Still, Dallas loves Tex-Mex."
As for where Barsotti himself likes to eat in Dallas, he says, "I love eating at Tei-an and having brunch at Smoke. The brisket hash with a poached egg...It's freaking delicious." It's no wonder he'd be attracted to such a dish. He is obsessed with simple, local fare.
"In Italy, what I love so much about it, is that you can still find people that really embrace their regional style of cooking and can convince you that theirs is the best style," he says with a laugh. He calls his experiences there "revelatory" in terms of how "completely simplistic" their cooking is. "They've been making it forever and have complete passion about it. I eat at these traditional places [in Italy], and I really learn a lot."
But Barsotti doesn't simply seek to replicate what he eats in Italy. Instead, he works to create the best version of those dishes that can be created here, with the ingredients and equipment available in this country. "My old boss used to say that authenticity is bound by people and place. When I cook, I embrace the taste memory and do what we can with that here."
And he does a damn good job of it. His pasta is impossibly delicate and every ingredient he uses is set to task. If he uses it, you can taste it.
My companion and I ordered several dishes to share. We started with the mozzarella di bufala, tomato, panna and oregano pizza, which was as crisp and tasty as you might imagine with Barsotti's training. We then enjoyed a salad of baby beets, comice pear, fugi apple, Gorganzola dolce latte, and marcona almonds. The combination made for such a colorful, pretty plate, and the surprising combination of textures and tastes was delicious.
The grilled heart of romaine with roasted pancetta, avocado and shaved Parmigiano salad also offered an equally happy variety of flavors and textures. For pastas, we had the tortelli of spinach and homemade ricotta with tomato, sage and cream, as well as the pappardelle al ragu Bolognese. I just could not believe the gentle texture and taste of his pasta. The tortelli was sheer bliss. Truly. His ragu was all about the meat (as it should be), meat that he grinds himself -- a little bigger than usual as that braises better than smaller bits, he says. Nothing drowning in tomato sauce here.
We also had a nibble of ravioli of Maine lobster and agnolotti of braised rabbit with sugo and black trumpet mushrooms. The first was rich, buttery heaven and the second made me change my tune about rabbit. I love it. You can get a taste of it all too by ordering the pasta tasting. An excellent and addictive choice.
For dessert we had the sticky toffee pudding and the chocolate roulade with peppermint marscarpone. The first made my companion miss her mom in England and the second made me miss my mother's black bottoms -- tiny, rich chocolate cakes with creamy, sweet cheese inside. Yes, Barsotti's are more refined. But, like with everything he does, it's the classic simplicity that made it so delicious, just like with my mother's baking.
And our tab was still just over $50 each. Not bad. Not bad at all.
With his clear understanding of all things Italian and culinary, it's not hard to imagine that Barsotti might want to move Italy one day. But that's not on his radar. "I really enjoy being there for blocks of time. If I could spend months of time there, I would love that. I wish I had done that in college. Now, I try to go once or twice a year for two weeks. Not this year, though, with the baby coming. It's completely all about food when I'm there."
And though Barsotti may not dream of moving to Italy, he clearly still dreams about it. "My perfect day? I'm not here at work," he says with a laugh. "I wake up in Italy on the Amalfi coast or in Florence or Bolonga; taking my cappuccino with pastry in the morning, walking the city or on the beach, having lunch with wine, relaxing for a few hours, walking some more, followed by dinner." You can see in his eyes, that, in his head, he's already there.
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Lucky for Dallas, then, it doesn't look like we'll lose Barsotti to Italy, or anywhere else for that matter, as his plans include expanding his foothold right here. "I definitely have a desire to do a few more things but definitely within the context of Italian food. I want to open an Italian grocery store with sandwiches and wine and sausages that we make. I'm gonna do it. I have an idea and a vision that that I'm really going to realize. Jimmy's does it great. But there's plenty of room."
And it has to be said, Barsotti is quite good-looking and incredibly charming, also not bad traits in a chef. Sure, it might not help in the kitchen. But it sure doesn't hurt in the front of the house, where you will often find Barsotti chatting with regulars and turning first-timers into regulars.
On another note, believe it or not, Italian isn't the only kind of food that lights Barsotti's proverbial fire. His other love? Vietnamese food. "I am a big fan," he explains. But he says he is still on the prowl for the perfect place in Dallas. He misses his favorite haunt in San Francisco -- The Slanted Door -- and seemed tickled that it tops my favorite list too. "My day off was Wednesday, and I would eat at the bar. Elevated street food paired with great wine."
Even when it's not Italian, Barsotti's interest in food always remains the same. Simple. Well-intentioned. Delicious.