There is a pocket of coolness hiding out in Plano, and its name is Urban Crust. Dave Matthews and The Cure play over the speakers and both floors of the restaurant are packed with midday diners, couples and families and ladies who lunch. The walls are exposed brick and a massive sliding wood door separates the dining area from the back. Wooden chairs and clusters of black tables fill the room, and from the second floor dining room you can see the silhouette of stairs leading up the roof.
The menu is mostly pizza, naturally. But it also offers soup and salad, as well as a few appetizers and several pasta dishes. I started with the calamari, a weak spot for me. The crust was made with semolina, making it crisp and flavorful, and the dipping sauces included a homemade mayo and tasty marinara. I then moved on to a Caesar salad that was crisp and fresh and not drowning in dressing. (I hate when that happens.) And it comes topped with slivers of Parmesan. Yum.
The Margherita pizza was crisp and flavorful and one of the best in the city. After I finish lunch, my waiter Abraham tells me, "I make the best coffee in the metroplex." Impossible to resist, I order a cappuccino and the vanilla crème brulee, which arrives with a strawberry carved into a rose. Very nice.
Abraham is attentive throughout the meal without being pushy and brings me wine to taste with my calamari and is very concerned when I don't finish the dish. But I assure him it's due to my level of hunger not the dish's level of deliciousness and make him promise to pack it for me. The waiter even promises to pack up the complimentary tapenade and bread that's served to every table saying. "It tastes good when you're watching the news or something," he tells me.
Owner Nathan Shea is in the restaurant the day of my visit talking to guests and overseeing the daily works, which might explain the high level of service all around. After lunch, chef Salvatore Gisellu, 42, joins me to tells me a little bit about his background and about Urban Crust.
Gisellu moved to the United States in 1991 and landed right here in Dallas. He says he misses Italy, of course. But, he adds with a laugh, "When you leave there you want to come here and when you live here you want to go there." He came here for the same reason many young people do, he explains. "I was 21. I was trying to live the American dream."
For the first seven years he was in the Unites States, he was a chef at Arcodoro Pomodoro. "It was a very exciting move for me. I didn't speak any English. Between my Sardinian and my Italian I got by for the first year." Then he bought Daddy Jack's Wood Fire Grill in 1998 and ran that until last year when he opened Urban Crust with proprietor Shea.
With so many pizza places in Dallas, I had to ask what the real difference is between a good pizza and a great pizza. Gisellu explains: "Just good ingredients. We import the flour from Italy. We make the mozzarella fresh here everyday, imported buffalo mozzarella. It's creamier, more elegant, simple. We also use fresh tomatoes and imported Italian tomatoes. We crush those very gently and put some basil in there. The Margherita pizza we make is the simplest pizza in the world. If you use the best ingredients, you don't have to add anything, and it only takes two minutes to cook in the wood-burning oven. The good thing about this pizza is that it's so light."
With the hip vibe of the restaurant and the great food, you might wonder why the place isn't in Deep Ellum or Uptown. But Gisellu has no qualms about the location. Shea grew up in the area, and both he and Gisellu say they feel very much a part of the Dallas food scene.
"We do Savor Dallas and all of that. We're very happy to be here. We have people coming from Dallas, Frisco, Denton. We even have people take the train right from Mockingbird Station. [When we opened, we figured,] if we could get people from the west side of Plano and from downtown, we'd consider ourselves successful. And we did."
Gisellu's goal is to relieve people of their biggest misconception about Italian food. "It's not just a bucket of spaghetti," he says. He thought too many restaurants calling themselves Italian serve just that.
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Urban Crust also boasts a third-floor roof-top bar with an open-air deck for drinking and dining, tables with individual TVs and an all-around surprisingly groovy atmosphere. They call it 32 degrees. It has a clever "ice bar," a line of "snow" where guests can place their drinks to keep them cold.
Plus, they offer several liquors on tap, including Jägermeister, Patron and Tuaca -- all served at minus five degrees -- as well as a number of beers on tap, all served at 32 degrees. Hence the name.
Even if you have to set the GPS and (oh the horror) drive north of LBJ Freeway, Urban Crust is well worth the trip, which is hardly a trek at all.