Restaurant Reviews

The Whole Boot

That spot on McKinney Avenue and Monticello, the one that sizzled and popped with Dallas couture before someone pulled the plug on the glitterati frier, the one that elevated chef Gilbert Garza to prominence before he stepped down and escaped to a little neighborhood spot called Suze, has risen from the asphalt. Yet it's more of a reanimation than a reincarnation. At first blush, not much has changed. The dining room is little different, with a mustard color hand-ragged on the walls and the removal of some carpeting.

As Toscana, it featured Tuscan cuisine. As eccolo, which means "here it is," all of Italy is draped over the white tablecloths. The menu and wine list represent virtually every region in Italy worth its sea salt, a substance used promiscuously throughout the menu. Spuma di gorgonzola from Lombardia, trippaj alla Romana from Lazio, bucatini con pancetta e fave from Puglia and so on. And like all good Italian restaurants, the item headings are written in Italian, and the English translations are hard to read in dim light. It all seems part of some cultural acquaintance program, though I wonder why restaurants don't go all the way and price their food in lire so we can also become acquainted with currency exchange rates.

The wine list is just as sliced and diced. It embraces divisions by grape variety, flavor profile, region of origin and by exclusivity, with a page of special and rare vintages for those Dallasites who had the sense to cash out of the dotcom boom before it bombed. Here you can find wines ranging in price from $78 to $225.

Tethered to the regional listings is a gathering of the major grapes growing there, some no doubt unfamiliar to sippers weaned off of Mad Dog via chardonnay and merlot. As the world's largest wine producer, Italy soaks itself and the rest of the world with one and a half billion gallons of wine annually, nearly three times as much as the United States. Yet Italy is perhaps the least understood of the major wine producers by the casual connoisseur.

Eccolo's wine list explains that enoteca is Italian nomenclature for wine library, though eccolo is perhaps only a library in the way a bookmobile is. Still its collection of more than 200 labels is as comprehensive and agile as you might expect from a restaurant with a name that's hard to spit out without embarrassing yourself over a missing vowel. Little clusters of Chiantis, dolcettos, barbaras, amarones, Barolos and Barbarescos make this list a rush to drink from. Yet eccolo could pack far more rush into its patrons with a little ingenuity combined with a virile passion for shameless exploitation. When I asked the waiter if the enoteca offered flights, he looked at me like I had taken an alarming wrong turn on my way to the airport.

Why, pray tell, is this library seemingly not interested in dispelling the murkiness of Italian wines by helping us put our money where our mouths are? They could create some ingenious flights at this enoteca, helping the unwashed masses understand the complexities of Italian wine. They could, for example, use Italian varietal bottlings such as chardonnay and merlot as benchmarks and tether them to flights of Italian reds or whites that most of us might not be familiar with. And with all of the great brunellos, amarones, Barolos and Barbarescos on the list, why not offer them by the glass as daily wine list specials at a premium price? Make a big stink by having the servers pour the wine at the table so diners can see where their money is going, and maybe toss in some trivia about the wine, too.

They don't serve brunello by the glass, but our waiter made a good stab to find an equivalent at a price that wouldn't keep us there washing dishes long after the place closed. His effort yielded a Trerose Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1997, a roaring but silky fruit bucket made from a variant of sangiovese grown in southern Tuscany. And when we saw the price ($34/bottle), we decided to scrub the glass and drink a whole bottle. Apparently this was an unusual find, because on a return visit we couldn't find the wine on the list, and I had to produce my receipt before the server knew what I was talking about. It took both the server and manager Alessio Franceschetti a fervent scouring of the wine racks to find another bottle.

Eccolo ristorante and enoteca is the brain toddler of Alvin Granoff, a former Texas legislator (1982-'95) and part owner of the Stoneleigh Hotel, where he met and coddled eccolo's chef, Rick Robbins. Robbins is a graduate of both The Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, and the Italian Culinary Institute in Costigliole D'Asti. Publicity propaganda says he spent a year traveling Italy in search of recipes and ideas. But all of this résumé padding isn't worth an anchovy fart bubble if it isn't tethered to prodigious talent, and Robbins seems to have it.

Our first visit was virtually flawless from start to finish. Tagliatelle gamberi e basilico (fettuccine pasta with sautéed shrimp) was a deliciously complex first course. Interwoven in the strands of pasta were firm, lush shrimp bodies and their severed heads, kind of a gastro twist on a dog chasing its own tail. The heads can cause a bit of culinary ruckus, as the long thin antennae, protruding from stubs near the black beady eyes, kept getting tangled in the fork tines. A friend of Italian extraction informed us that it is appropriate to suck on the heads, which released an intensely briny flavor, though it was too terrifying to contemplate what exactly we had drawn into our mouths. The shrimp and pasta were bathed in a soothing brown sauce made of basil, Orvieto wine, shallots and unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. This agile combination of flavors was so nimble that no component got in the way of another.

Carne miste e balsamico cipolline was a collection of pinched and folded lacy sheets of Italian meats, including prosciutto, coppacolla (dried salami), mortadella (a cooked pork sausage), bresaola (air-dried beef) and wild boar prosciutto. Each slice had fresh hints of sweetness and was brightly hued without any graying or slightly sour flavors that occur at times.

Silvery strips of fresh white marinated anchovy (alici con peperonata) were casually draped over roasted red peppers forming a mound that was ringed by a bead of greenish olive oil. The anchovies bristled with searing brininess, as if they were pickled (they were). The prickly dazzle of the fillets contrasted beautifully with the smooth, ghostly wisp of sweetness emanating from the peppers.

The deftness of Robbins' kitchen physics carried over to the entrées. Bistecca fiorentina is a bone-in New York steak sliced and pushed up against a clean sheaf of arugula dusted with cheese. The steak was juicy and bulged shamelessly with richness. The arugula was an effective counterpoint as the potent bitterness cut the fat on the palate.

Eccolo specials whacked the socks off, too. A calamari ensemble of squid torso cones tattooed with grill marks and tossed atop a loose, moist heap of polenta was a simple ring of resounding flavor and tenderness. Another delicious rendition girded in polenta was a cube of rare seared yellow-fin tuna cluttered with pieces of goat cheese all lightly doused in red-wine basil vinaigrette.

Yet not everything came off with such ringing clarity. The insalata frutti di mare (le marche), a grilled seafood salad with limp arugula leaves in a moscato-olive oil dressing, was replete with mushy scallops and underdone shrimp. This detracted from the mussels, clams and a tangle of octopus tentacles that were perfectly prepared. Chilean sea bass sautéed with artichokes and stem-on caperberries in a white wine sauce with mascarpone had a sauce puddle that nearly overwhelmed the small section of fish topped with a fennel sprig. Instead of firm, moist and pliable, the fish was gelatinous and mushy, though the flavor resounded.

Bucatini with fresh fava beans recaptured the menu's high timber. The strands of bucatini pastas were perfectly cooked, and the bright green beans were tender and nutty. Scraps of pancetta and pecorino cheese kicked the grain and bean heartiness with a little sharp, salty nip, allowing the fiber to dance a little on the tongue.

Dessert finished with the sort of simple flavor meshings that make this menu work like a set of well-anointed gears. Panna cotta, a deliciously fresh, slightly sweet egg custard, was light and silky. It was drenched in fruit sauce and surrounded by strawberry slices, blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries. The edge of the plate was dusted with confectioners' sugar, which had caked from condensation, presumably. But this is a minor grievance.

Eccolo is a germinating sprout that, with the spark of Robbins' fertile brain plus a few minor tweaks, could emerge as a potent Italic force.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz