There are several Italian restaurants in and around Dallas, but many fans of the cuisine complain that truly good Italian is hard to find here. At Partenope in downtown Dallas, husband-and-wife duo Megan and Dino Santonicola incorporate Neapolitan tradition throughout their restaurant.
The restaurant’s name comes from the original name of the city of Naples. Partenope was a siren that tried to seduce Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. She ultimately failed and threw herself into the Gulf of Naples. The surrounding area was settled and called Partenope.
This past September, Partenope was named Best Italian Restaurant in the Observer’s Best of 2020 issue. Despite operating in the middle of a pandemic, Meg and Dino have remained positive.
“We immediately lost 85% of our business with offices closing and business and leisure travel halted,” Meg says. “It’s been a very slow comeback. We are roughly back to 30% of our pre-COVID sales. Office buildings are still empty, so our lunch is virtually nonexistent. Weekends are getting better with more vibrant downtown activity and weeknights are OK, gaining consistency of a positive trend. Being awarded Best Italian Restaurant by the Observer for 2020 has been a huge positive for us.”
When opening Partenope, the couple wanted a building with historical value, which is why they landed in the 91-year-old Titche-Goettinger building downtown.
“We looked at a lot of other spots in Dallas,” Megan says. “Nothing in Dallas or in the U.S. is old like Italy, let’s be honest. They have a rich, rich history. But this old building kind of felt like you were in Naples, the stone, the structure of it. Being in a nondescript new building just didn't feel like we were where we were supposed to be.”
Dino, originally from Naples, was brought to Dallas after Cane Rosso owner Jay Jerrier recruited him to help open the first Cane Rosso in 2011 and work as a pizzaiolo. It was there that he met Megan.
Last fall, the two opened Partenope, a process that took 18 months.
“This is the only thing we really know how to do,” Dino says. “I think for anyone that spends so much time in the restaurant, their dream at some point in life to have their own place.”
Megan and Dino find that customers often stay in the restaurant for more than two hours. They enjoy hearing from guests who have traveled to Italy and tell them how similar the restaurant's food is to the country's.
“We’ve had people say that they went on a trip to Amalfi and they see pasta Genovese on all of the menus and had never heard of it before,” Megan says. “They see it here but they don’t see it in Dallas. It’s a really nice compliment.”
Megan says both she and Dino each have about 25 years in the hospitality industry. With their experience, they want to use what they’ve learned and give Dallas a taste of Italian cuisine.
“There are so many Italian restaurants that aren’t necessarily Italian,” Megan says. “There’s American Italian, New York Italian, Chicago Italian and others. We try to stick with what Dino knows and what we experience when we go to Naples. You can get spaghetti and meatballs at other places, but that’s not an Italian dish. Chicken Alfredo is not an Italian dish. We’re offering true Italian dishes.”
In addition to offering Italian dishes, Megan and Dino want to allow guests to get familiar with Neapolitan dining traditions. They offer only certain dishes on certain dates, as a means to align with customs.
“We serve ragu here only on Sunday and Monday,” Dino says. “The goal is to try to give people the experience we have in Naples. Families, on Sundays, cook and eat the ragu. Then on Mondays, they eat the leftovers. That’s why we only serve it those days. Everything we do is influenced by Napoli culture, because that’s all I know how to do.”
Partenope Ristorante, 1903 Main St. (downtown), Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 3:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday.
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