Restaurant Reviews

Risotto Fix

Taverna is ear-piercing. This is odd, because thought has been given to sound. While Taverna has a concrete floor, it has cloth-covered baffles in the ceiling to minimize sonic glare. Still noise sneaks through, leaving one to wonder what the roar would be if the ceiling were baffle-less. There would be no room to hear yourself taste

Oddly, the noise wasn't a detraction. It wasn't shrill. It didn't scour the inner ear or belt-sand other senses. It was, how you say in the hospitality trade, energizing. It buzzed. Squint your eyes a certain way and you almost felt hip.

Still, it was hard to converse. Our server didn't seem to have any trouble, though. "Our risotto is the best," he said in a firm megaphone voice. Such conviction is hard to ignore, especially when it involves carb heresy. Well, then, let's have the risotto ai frutti di mare. The frutti di mare is this: clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp--loads of all of it. None of it has off flavors--not so much as a hint of errant swamp scum. These meats are clean, sweet, delicious. The coarse grains of rice are creamy yet firm and separate and saddled with a pronounced punch of pepper--maybe too much. It might be good to dial it down a little to let other flavors peek through.

Anyone can hit a risotto homer once. But twice? Here's the pitch: risotto agli scampi e zucchini. It is equally as good as the frutti di mare--this in spite of the fact that the pesto pleasure principle has been pounded into ruin by needless repetition. Pesto is what kiwi fruit was to plate garnishes; what balsamic is to culinary fluids. With very rare exceptions it triggers yawns from overuse.

Too often pesto is a mindless doodad standing in for lack of imagination, or a thing to cloak the incompetence of the other ingredients, treacherously treading over the mind with careless garlic burn buffered by toasted pine nuts. No pine nuts here. Didn't need them. Juicy, briny shrimp took care of whatever outrageous garlic (sometimes basil) imbalances there might be. There weren't any. But it did have this unusual feature: thin orange threads tossed over the top of the risotto mound. They behaved like sweet potato shavings, but this interpretation would be wrong. They are strings of fried carrot, little things that played off the sweetness of the shrimp while mimicking a pine nut role. Genius, that.

But pizza is also part of the Taverna headline. The pies aren't bad, but they certainly don't blitz the senses like the risotto does. How could they? Risotto is a singularly sublime substance, one that becomes irrevocably tragic when the stirring is muffed. When pizza is muffed, all you have to do is throw on more pepperoni and shake some cheese from a green can. Here the sampling was Romana: tomatoes, mozzarella, oregano, olives, capers and anchovies. Fear always grips when those little fish are mentioned as a pizza topping, though they're certainly not more frightening than pineapple. So I ordered a plate of extras, which triggers other anxieties. Anchovies baked into a pie become flattened, dried and extracted. They resemble insects embedded in a radiator after a long interstate run: dull, enervated and tattered with no knowledge of what hit them. The ones on the plate are profoundly different. They're plump. They shimmer. The edges are smooth. They know they've died for a cause greater than themselves.

Lay them out on the pie to decipher the contrasts. The cooked fish are woven into the fabric of the toppings, frozen in a mozzarella weave. They're a bit chalky in the mouth--gritty, like you're eating pulverized bone (and you are). The fresh ones next to them flash a smooth gloss, and they're almost juicy (though the thought of anchovy juice triggers a whole new set of creeps). Maybe pie makers have gotten it wrong with these. Maybe this is why anchovies on pizza--while dazzling in theory--most often result in disappointment. Cooking anchovies into a pizza seems to draw out all of the wincing anchovy stereotypes. They're strong. They're salty. They stink.

Not so if you drape them on later, as a baking epilogue. Here they perform. They're lively, amusing, they don't stink (as much). Skip over this little fish drama, though, and the pie flaws become manifest. Like the noise, they aren't intrusively nettlesome; they just impede the conversation with the palate. The crust is inconsistent. The outside is crackly, while just an inch inward the pie droops and sags. The crust doesn't hold its own. Other than as a bed for toppings, it becomes irrelevant.

Alberto Lombardi of Lombardi's and the defunct Lombardi Mare and Bizu is the craftsman behind Taverna. On the outside, the building is blood red with olive green shutters. Here's a peculiar thing: A Taverna picture postcard capturing the front door and the oval Taverna shingle was shot during a snow storm, thick beads of white fluff edging the patio railing and the roof line. Dallas during snow; risotto during Atkins. The counterintuitive touches are compelling.

Inside, the walls are textured cream with a deep red curtain serving as an entrance portal. An open kitchen with a wood-burning oven trimmed generously in copper provides a bit of culinary majesty.

Tables and chairs are simple wood. On one visit, the table tops were inexplicably sticky, as if someone had shellacked the surfaces with a layer of melted dinner mints. Having dinner mints on the mind is distressing when you're forking flaps of carpaccio.

The carpaccio is thin slices of tenderloin topped with arugula drizzled in mustard vinaigrette. There is a Parmesan shaving wedged in the green fluff. "Crispy" fried capers pebble surfaces. The arugula is oily. The tenderloin slices are gray. It's hard to warm up to carpaccio that doesn't stare back at you with deep raw bloody rose threaded with the ivory tributaries of intramuscular fat. No language on earth says "bloodthirsty carnivore predator" better than carpaccio. When the meat has begun to turn gray or is forced gray by searing, you somehow feel like a buzzard.

The meats in the casareccio Taverna, a selection of prosciutto, mortadella, salami and speck (salt-and-cold-smoke cured ham) spread over a wooden serving platter, are better. The prosciutto is delicately sweet, while the salami has great irregular spots of fat peeking through the deep red. Speck is thin, hard, slightly translucent and chewy--delicious.

There's a bar off to the side of the dining room, with a simple back bar of wooden shelves for bottles. A sitting area with leather ottomans is off to the side. It's fashionable, almost a staging area for Dallas exhibitionism, but mostly seems to serve as a waiting area for tables and to-go pizzas. Above the bar is a chalkboard dedicated to the day's specials.

Pork chop, pounded thin, is one. The chop is large, on account of the pounding, and is embedded with a large bone where the meat suddenly gets juicy and flavorful. There was also perch in lemon sauce--an exquisite fish strip with a slightly crisp crust and a sweetly clean interior that was moist without being spongy.

But perhaps the best special sampled is the lobster ravioli soaking in an amber pool of shrimp sauce. The firm, supple pillows reek of briny, buttery richness, while the aromatic sauce injects a caramel-like sweetness.

Desserts include pizzas violated with chocolate nutella (hazelnut) or pear and vanilla ice cream, and the ubiquitous crème brûlée (and we whine about kiwi). But the panna cotta is delicious: light, creamy and mild but with an underlying richness. It's cut with a tangy fruit sauce well-saddled with swollen black and blueberries.

Taverna may be noisy, but it won't impede risotto, which always converses in silence. 3210 Armstrong Ave., 214-520-9933. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 11-1 a.m. Friday, 9-2 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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