Last September, two Neapolitan pizza-and-pasta restaurants opened in downtown Dallas. They’re just a half-mile apart, opened their doors in consecutive weeks, share a PR firm and have both won different global awards for pizza quality.
So, which one does Italian food better?
I paid a few visits to both 400 Gradi, whose owner is the winner of the 2014 World Pizza Championship in Parma, and Partenope Ristorante, whose owner is the winner of the 2012 Pizza Olympics in Naples.
Here’s what I learned: For all their superficial similarities, there’s a sizable quality difference here. One of these restaurants is a wonderful addition to its neighborhood and could become a downtown hangout. At the other, there are definitely bright spots, but there are also employees trash-talking dishes in front of customers.
Let’s unfasten our belts and dive into this tale of two pizzerias.
It’s quiet at lunchtime in 400 Gradi’s spacious, stylish dining room. Very quiet. So quiet that I can hear two managers having a conversation at the bar. One of them, who appears to be senior and has a laptop open, lists the dishes that are most profitable for the restaurant. Then he offers some shocking advice.
“Never push the risotto, gnocchi or tortelli,” he tells his employee, “‘cause they’re boring.”
The words ring in my head. I look down at our half-eaten bowl of tortelli ($23) and think, he’s not wrong. They’re dumpling-like noodles the shape of glamorous hats, filled with pumpkin and topped with pine nuts. They’re fine. The sauce is literally just browned butter, and there are exactly three sage leaves and a handful of crispy cinnamon cookie crumbs that give the dish a definite #PumpkinSpice flavor.
My dining companion leans across the table and whispers, “This is one of the meaner things I’ve ever said about a restaurant meal, but I like the Lean Cuisine version better.”
It could be worse. It could be our Capricciosa pizza ($16). The classical Naples-style thin crust still has a gummy unbaked layer. Gobs of dough sit in the crust’s puffy edges. On top of the pie: a tomato sauce appears to contain no herbs or other flavorings, but does have olives, a few globs of mozzarella, the palest “prosciutto” I have ever seen and some chunks of artichoke heart so enormous they must be removed from the pizza and cut with a fork and knife. The toppings, like the dough, appear to be barely cooked.
Things are looking pretty dire for 400 Gradi — but then comes our next visit, on a weeknight. This time, we take care to avoid the “boring” items. The result is a whole different restaurant.
Everything is better. Our Porcina pizza ($19) is flawlessly cooked this time, with crisped-up salami, porcini mushrooms and the funky kick of Gorgonzola cheese. Even the crust seems more flavorful.
The tagliatelle alla bolognese is solid ($19), and a bowl of spaghettini comes with the clever idea of using lobster broth for a sauce to bind together crab meat with zucchini and cherry tomatoes. I just wish there were more of those veggies to justify the $29 tag.
Despite the improvements, some gripes remain. Our waiter insists we must try “calamari,” which turns out to actually be a combination of calamari, soft shell crab, fried veggies and some bland squiggles we cannot identify ($16). Several of the tragically limited vegetable options are clearly out of season — why are they serving squash blossoms in January?
Our dinner ends with an eccentric riff on tiramisu ($10) — made using sponge cake rather than lady fingers, covered with cream and topped with two bizarre cookies made to look like macarons but with the texture of survivalist cereal bricks.
I just don’t know what to expect from 400 Gradi on my next visit. Maybe the pizzas will be on point, or not. Maybe the pastas will be fine, or boring. In springtime, when the menu is in season, there might be improvement. For now, the fact remains that a side bowl of green beans with Parmesan and almond puree ($9) is the only plate we finished in either of our visits.
Having suffered through an underbaked and underflavored first pizza at 400 Gradi, I sink my teeth into the dough at Partenope with the nervousness of a soccer fan watching a penalty shootout. But this time the news is good: Partenope’s dough is spectacular.
We need to talk about the dough here before we discuss toppings. It’s got an intense sourdough flavor, with hints of salt and olive oil. Pizza maker Dino Santonicola, previously of Il Cane Rosso, cooks his pies until the dough’s outer edges are covered with black-charred speckles. Yes, Neapolitan pizzas will always need a fork and knife in the center — or, delightfully, each slice can be folded lengthwise, like a taco.
If only the pizzas were consistently cooked. Our first order, a trifolata with mushrooms and sausage ($15), is flawless, with beautiful chew and a thin but airy crust. Then comes our second pie, the Piazza Dante ($16), with sausage, bell peppers, basil, onion and a dough base that is still raw in spots.
When the oven is this hot, a few seconds can make a tremendous difference.
But everything else at Partenope is consistently of such quality that I’m willing to give the pies more tries. For one thing, many of the ingredients, such as the perfect spicy Italian sausage, come from Jimmy’s Food Store. But equal attention is paid to the other dishes here, too.
It’s delightful to see a pizza place serve a salad as vibrant as the bowl here that’s filled with little gem lettuce and, surprisingly, white beans ($12). Topped with a showering of grated cheese and just barely enough dressing, this is a refreshing way to prepare for heavier main courses. So is a platter of crispy Brussels sprouts — for once not drowning in syrupy sauce — alongside a ball of burrata cheese, a small scoop of intensely concentrated pesto and a few slices of fluffy, airy focaccia bread ($13).
A bowl of spaghetti allo scarpariello goes beyond the classical tomatoes and basil to include the smoky background heat of Calabrian chili peppers, which builds with each successive bite ($15). Of the vegetable side dishes, the flash-fried Brussels sprouts duplicate the excellent appetizer portion but without cheese or bread ($8), and braised broccoli rabe is buried under fiery peppers and too much lemon juice ($8).
But the eggplant side is terrific ($8). Cubes of tender eggplant are bathed in a tomato sauce that’s borderline magical: super thick, but like a puree rather than crushed, with intense and concentrated flavor.
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In other words, it’s possible to have a good meal at Partenope Ristorante without even ordering a pizza. That foretells a promising future for this kitchen, and if the pizzas consistently reach the excellence they’re capable of, this could be a fixture in downtown Dallas for a long, long time.
400 Gradi, 2000 Ross Ave., Suite 140 (downtown). 972-850-9053. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday.
Partenope Ristorante, 1903 Main St. (downtown). 214-463-6222. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.