Highland Park finally has its own tourist attraction.
On the second floor of a building in posh Highland Park Village, a shopping development where ordinary Dallasites go to feel a crushing sense of despair about America’s accelerating income inequality, sits Fachini, a new restaurant that feels more like a museum, or maybe dinner theater. Fachini isn’t just a throwback; it’s a reincarnation of a bygone era of dining.
That era, to be specific, is the kind of Italian-American restaurant where, in the 1970s, Frank Sinatra occupied a corner booth, waiters prepared Caesar salads tableside and Tommy DeVito asked Henry Hill, “Funny how?” Stepping into Fachini feels like entering a time warp: The waiters are in tuxedos, the bussers in white dinner jackets; Roy Orbison and Dean Martin croon on the stereo; black and white hexagonal tiles carpet the floor and the chandeliers have little lampshades over every bulb, many of them cheerfully askew.
The bathrooms are lined with autographed photos of Sopranos cast members. A wood-fired oven, flames curling along its back wall, looms a half-story over the main dining rooms. Although Fachini’s bar is bathed in sunlight, the dining areas are dusky, the perfect dimness for meeting a don in a pinstripe suit to talk about sending someone to the big sleep.
Fachini may take on an element of fantasy in another way, too: prices that most Dallasites will find forbidding, to put it mildly. Veal parmigiana is $55, and the Caesar — yes, portions for two or more diners are prepared tableside — goes for $20. Another piece of the fairy tale helps remove some of the sting: Portions here are gigantic. We left one visit with leftover boxes from every single course.
After they’ve noshed on free antipasti-like cubes of garlic bread and thick, creamy ricotta, most customers’ attention will naturally fall on old-school Italian-American staples like the veal chop marsala or that tableside Caesar salad. Surprisingly, this instinct can lead diners astray. Take the Caesar salad, which is flavorful and built on good lettuce and croutons, but badly overdressed. (Our order was made and plated in the kitchen.) It’s not quite soupy, but the dressing coats each leaf like jam on toast.
The restaurant’s iconic dish is a 100-layer lasagna ($38), an idea that restaurateur Julian Barsotti borrowed and improved from an original at New York City’s Del Posto. 100-layer lasagna is a bit like a magic trick: Its name brings the same sense of amazement, of unlimited possibility. Unfortunately, its actual appearance on the table is akin to seeing the magician stash an extra deck of cards in the lining of a jacket.
Here’s how the trick works: Fachini’s chefs create two different 50-layer lasagnas using incredibly thin flat noodles and portions of pork shoulder and beef brisket. Then they let the mountains of food rest and compact overnight, stack them on top of each other and, when an order is placed, slice off an inch to tip sideways and throw under the broiler.
Here’s how the trick does not quite work: Broiling lasagna sideways means that the burnt edges are made of noodle, not cheese. Burnt cheese is everyone’s favorite part; burnt pasta is not. Additionally, the layers of meat must be so thin that the resulting dish tastes almost pastry-like, and cheese flavor comes only from a spoonful of ricotta and grated parmesan on top.
Barsotti’s improvement over the Del Posto original is to serve the slab on top of a pool of “Sunday gravy,” an extra-special meat sauce so rich and so good that I would pay the same price to eat it as a bowl of soup.
Another pasta wasn’t quite working, either. Our linguine with clams ($21) — split into two separate, still-large helpings in the kitchen — was generous on the clams but so oversalted that the sauce tasted metallic.
Fachini is better when its fantasy world is Texas-specific. There’s a tribute to the original Campisi’s Egyptian Restaurant, the Dallas restaurant that has served Mockingbird Lane since 1950. Fachini’s Egyptian salad ($15) starts with iceberg lettuce, then adds pepperoncinis and the kind of searingly acidic dressing that is a hallmark of classic red sauce joints. Don’t ask for an extra grind of black pepper — it has plenty already.
I don’t know how market-price “snapper New Orleans” landed on this menu, but we are better for it. The snapper gets a quick turn in that wood-fired oven, yielding perfectly crisp edges even with the skin removed. It sits under a chilled relish of cherry tomatoes, basil and crabmeat, and is as altogether wonderful as it is un-Italian.
On the starter side of the page, toasted lobster ravioli combines two great Italian traditions: the toasted ravioli of St. Louis and the lobster-stuffed pasta of Barsotti’s first and best Italian restaurant, Nonna. It’s a playful combination of elegance and fair food, with a bowl of tomato sauce for dipping ($28).
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There are just three desserts, and they know exactly what this restaurant needs: New York-style cheesecake, tiramisu and carrot cake. The tiramisu uses soft cake layers rather than ladyfingers and is spectacular in its decadence ($12). The carrot cake is an enormous slab, served on its side, the better to observe its centimeter-thick layers of icing ($12).
On one visit, the sharply-dressed staff kept rushing up to ask us questions that their colleagues had just asked thirty seconds ago. But on another, we enjoyed some of the best — and most honest — service in the whole region.
So is Fachini a worthwhile destination for a lavish night out? Dining here feels like taking a vacation to another era, but my guests and I left feeling a little let down. Given the pedigree of the kitchen staff, this Highland Park hot spot seems like a safe bet to improve with age. On the other hand, tourist fantasies have a habit of becoming tourist traps.
Fachini, 33a Highland Park Village. 214-838-9688, fachinidallas.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.