Perhaps the biggest myth about the Dallas dining scene is that it has no great Italian food.
This is not a lie outsiders spread about us; it’s something we tell ourselves. I have heard it from friends and seen the complaint on social media. As recently as 2016, former Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner called Dallas “a town that has a serious short of good Italian places” (sic).
But if that complaint was ever true, it’s certainly false now. Nonna and Lucia serve outstanding, highly seasonal and personal Italian fare. Jimmy’s Food Store and CiboDivino provide hubs for shopping, snacking and wine-sipping. We enjoy a bounty of Neapolitan, Roman and New York-style pizza joints, and the past year has brought a sudden burst of new upscale Italian joints from Frisco to Oak Lawn.
So far the best of the newest wave comes from David and Jennifer Uygur, the husband-and-wife team behind longtime favorite Lucia. They hatched an enticing idea: What if they gave Lucia a sister restaurant, more casual, more affordable and easier to book? Wouldn’t that be perfect?
Now Macellaio is open, and the answer is yes, it is.
Macellaio occupies a brand-new building at the south end of the Bishop Arts District, with signage that’s mostly not visible from the sidewalk. The name is pronounced “Mah-chel-LIE-oh,” although I’ve heard friends say everything from “Muh Jelly” to “Marsala.”
The patio, facing east and well-shaded, is bearable even at the height of a Texas summer afternoon. The interior, filled with natural light and focused on a small bar stocked with Italian liquors, feels like it’s been part of the neighborhood forever. So does the menu, which masks its ambition behind Italian cooking of seemingly rustic simplicity.
Unlike Lucia, Macellaio doesn’t serve any pastas. Its specialty is cured meats; after all, the name is Italian for “butcher.”
It’s easy to have a memorable meal here without touching the butcher board, though. On one visit, my table enjoyed a nearly vegetarian feast — just $45 for two — starting with four slices of grilled bread topped with stracciatella cheese, so soft and luxurious it was practically molten, plus scorched green and white onions for added sweetness ($12).
If that isn’t cheesy enough, there is a petite salad of fresh shell beans, garlic and herbs, served coyly in a swirl on a plate that appears a little too large. Then a chef appears to ladle on the coup de grâce: a puree of Gruyere and lima beans, draped across the top like a gooey, dreamy blanket ($12). The cheese puree has just enough substance to feel healthy, and just enough richness to feel indulgent. How’s that for balance?
Macellaio’s tomato salad ($11), offering a rainbow of mostly cherry tomatoes, sits atop a hypnotic swirl of basil-infused oil and the kitchen’s house-made garum, a fish sauce so ancient that jars are preserved at Pompeii. Unlike some of the other tomato salads in town this summer, the dish is less about projecting the flavor of the produce and more about creating a bold, new combination — especially since it’s dusted in a purple snowfall of sumac.
We conserved bread slices from our beef tartare to dunk in the tomato salad’s dressing, and I’d advise any diner who finds bread on the table to do the same. Speaking of which, there is beef tartare, seemingly an obligation at every upscale Dallas restaurant, but here plated with more than the usual amount of care. In midsummer, the meat was hiding under a judicious smear of beef tallow mayonnaise, ultra-thin fans of green tomato and a red flutter of Espelette pepper ($16).
We found it hard to tear ourselves away from the small plates — a new bowl of baby bell and sweet peppers sounds like reason to go back yet again — but Macellaio is still Italian for “butcher,” so house-cured meats beckon. They’re served on a $9.50 one-meat board or $29 for a chef’s choice (no arguing) of five meats. I especially love the ‘nduja, the fiery-hot, spreadable pork-and-pepper salumi served in big dollops on slices of rosemary focaccia.
A less typical offering: basturma, the spice-rubbed Turkish cut, which, in Europe, was adapted and renamed pastrami. David Uygur, who like this author is half-Turkish, is sneaking his ancestry into the picture here; his interpretation of basturma is more delicately flavored and thinly sliced than the rustic original, which still has the rub coated along the edges.
Uygur’s Turkish side shows again in a lamb sirloin main dish ($28), plated with sumac-coated red onions (just like my mother’s) and divinely tender, smoky pieces of skinny eggplant. It’s better to mix everything together: Top each bite of lamb with some strings of onion.
To finish, it’s hard to go wrong with the panna cotta, which during high summer featured blueberries and macerated blackberries ($8). But many diners — myself included — will get too excited vacuuming up small plates and cured meats to save room.
It’s hard to find fault with Macellaio. The restaurant was out of beer on one visit, but with Ravinder Singh — the Observer’s 2017 best bartender — supervising a menu of sunny Mediterranean cocktails, that’s no big deal. As usual, Jennifer Uygur has assembled a small, wallet-friendly wine list that covers every possible mood.
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Perhaps the most exciting feature, to me, is the restaurant’s easy hospitality. Macellaio doesn’t feel like an investor-driven concept or social media bait. It’s a genuine neighborhood spot, in the best old-fashioned sense of the term, where half of the customers seem to be regulars and the other half are treated like they will be regulars soon. The restaurant adapts to any need: It can be a fancy night out, or it can be relief at the end of a long day.
In other words, every neighborhood needs a place like Macellaio. The only challenge is learning to pronounce its name.
Macellaio, 287 N. Bishop Ave. 972-685-9150, macellaiodallas.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday