Restaurant Reviews

Sprezza Serves up Sublime Yet Unpretentious Italian Food

Sprezzatura is a fun Italian word that means “studied nonchalance,” the art of preparing methodically but acting as if no preparation was necessary. A fashion-conscious friend says the word describes “a man who spends two hours doing his hair up so it looks like he just rolled out of bed.”

Julian Barsotti’s third and newest Italian restaurant, Sprezza, does a poor job acting like it just rolled out of bed. Evidence is everywhere of the great care invested in every detail, from the light fixtures to the wine list, from the serving dishes to, ironically, the restaurant’s name. I wouldn’t have it any other way. After just two months, Sprezza is already threatening to become one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas.

People often get big, dramatic expectations about a critic’s favorite, but Sprezza is not a big, dramatic place. The menu is mostly pizzas and pastas. The cooking philosophy is all about respecting great-quality ingredients, not imposing crazy ideas on them. Flavors are fresh, not bold. If Sprezza was a football player, it would score touchdowns but never bust out a victory dance.

This is high-quality dining without pretension or a hotshot chef’s need to show off.

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The menu’s Italian headers can be confusing at first glance, and waiters regale new visitors with overlong, complicated explanations. Don’t be intimidated. Here’s the too-long-didn’t-listen: on the left are “spuntini” (snacks, all $11), appetizers (all $14) and personal-size pizzas (all $16); on the right are fresh pastas, some of them classics ($17) and some of them changed seasonally ($19). At the bottom, a list of daily specials (“del giorno”) typically includes an additional soup, salad, pizza, pasta and seafood dish.

The food is old-world Italian, rather than Italian-American. There’s no spaghetti and meatballs here, and the pizzas follow the crisp-crusted style of Roman taverns. Still, Sprezza isn’t a formal, fussy place. Grab some appetizers for the table, then lean over and steal a friend’s ravioli.

Among the starters, the squash blossoms have been an early star, stuffed with mozzarella and served in a rustic tomato sauce. Squash blossoms are a spring vegetable Dallas doesn't see on enough menus, but here they’re mostly a vehicle for tomato sauce and cheese. It’s a good way to trick kids into eating their veggies.

More exciting, maybe, are some of the salads. One dish pairs beets and plums with farro wheat, an addicting interplay of textures spiced up by a few shishito peppers. In the “del giorno” section, a cool octopus salad will be a must-have as long as it stays on the menu, the tender diced octopus mixed up with potatoes and olives and elegantly dressed.
In general, the regular seasonal shifts in the menu make giving recommendations difficult, but the entire pasta section is reliably golden. Ravioli has the kind of deeply-flavored ragu that takes a whole afternoon of simmering; pasta amatriciana, with its fresh al dente noodles, bacon crumbles and subtle underline of heat, is a dreamy interpretation of my dream wintertime dinner.

On the seasonal list, there’s a marvelous tortellini alla primavera loaded up with fresh asparagus, spring onions, basil and turnips, and an even more essential dish of fusilli, or corkscrew noodles, with zingy sausage and another bundle of spring greens in brandy cream sauce. The only pasta misstep was a plate of quail gnocchi which arrived slightly too salty.

As impressive as all that is, some of my dining companions thought Sprezza’s pizza even better. The thin, crisp Roman-style crust and long, rectangular pies are similar in form to those at Olivella’s, but intriguing, inventive topping combinations make Sprezza’s pizza some of the best in Dallas.

Like the pastas, the pizzas change regularly. On my first visit, I tried a combination of ultra-thin potato slices, speck, fontina cheese and spring onions. The German-style toppings and thin crust made for a light, almost snack-like pizza, in contrast to the bolder salami pie with tomato sauce, or the pizza of the day on my second visit, featuring the luxurious taste combination of littleneck clams, pancetta and pecorino Romano cheese.

Food like this cries out for wine, and Sprezza’s wine list is affordable and adventurous. Every wine on the list comes from Italy, specifically Italian regions south of Rome: Sardinia, Sicily and the heel and toe of the boot. Even better, nearly every bottle costs between $49 and $59, which might not be dirt-cheap but is a mighty good bargain for the quality. Waitstaff give knowledgeable recommendations, and they don’t make hard sells for the most expensive bottles.
Only desserts (all $9) stand out as a disappointment at Sprezza. Not that they’re badly made; the lemon shortbread with fresh strawberries lives up to its billing, and tiramisu is OK but leaning heavier on cream and coffee than ladyfingers and cocoa. It’s just that the desserts are ordinary. After adventurous appetizer greens, fresh pasta and three of Dallas’ very best pizzas, the desserts were the one course that offered tastes our city already has in surplus.

But that’s a small matter, and one that Sprezza may address in the coming months. Anyway, pizzas and pasta are certainly filling enough that a satisfying meal can be had without any concluding sweets.

With its heavily season-based and harvest-based recipes, Sprezza could join a group of Dallas restaurants, like Lucia, Small Brewpub and FT33, that adventurous eaters will dream of visiting several times a year, just to see how the chefs’ ideas evolve. Luckily, unlike Lucia and FT33, Sprezza won’t take a huge bite out of the average paycheck. This is high-quality dining without pretension or a hotshot chef’s need to show off. If the restaurant is too meticulous to achieve the nonchalant quality of sprezzatura, its soft-spoken excellence will earn lasting popularity anyway.

Sprezza, 4010 Maple Ave., Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday 
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart