Opening Scene: Little Italy 1990
Like Lady and the Tramp, we sit in a cozy, slightly downscale restaurant eating big bowls of thick, cheesy ravioli treading in red marinara. Our two-top is tucked into a corner and draped with a thread-bare red and white checked tablecloth that’s gently illuminated by a scentless white candle perched in a wicker basket Chianti bottle. We sip non-descript Italian red wine in Bàcara glasses and fall in love; with Little Italy, with each other, with Frank Sinatra playing on an old jukebox and with the unmistakable romance of an Italian restaurant. – End Scene
Though Dallas lacks an Italian cultural enclave such as New York’s Little Italy or St. Louis’s The Hill, the city is benefitting from a surge in high-quality Italian restaurants that serve authentic food without the visual sentimentality of old school restaurants such as the ones I frequented in those cities. And, that’s molto bene by me.
Two new Italian restaurants I tried recently have distinctly different scenes; Partenope, a warm, diner-like place with a rustic New York vibe; and 400 Gradi, a shiny glamazon on the corner of see-and-be-seen. They are neighbors, less than a half-mile away from one another in Downtown but shouldn’t compete, as they are both excellent and offer diverse experiences.
First, the similarities: They are both Italian restaurants in Downtown; they serve Neapolitan pizza, though they both assert that they are not “pizza restaurants,” rather restaurants that serve pizza; they both have ownership that’s local by way of Italy; they both prepare and serve excellent food; they both have names you have to Google to understand.
Song: Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Scene 2: Partenope
Partenope (par-ten-OH-pay) was a Greek siren who was unable to seduce Ulysses with her voice, so she threw herself into the sea, her body washing ashore in Naples which now claims Partenope of a mascot of sorts. Chef/owner Dino Santonicola was born in raised there and brings his family recipes to the restaurant which he and his wife, Megan, opened in September. They know pizza, having worked with Jay Jerrier to established Cane Rosso as the go-to pizza restaurant in Dallas. They also know hospitality, atmosphere, authenticity and, of course, food and beverage.
For me, the very best thing about this restaurant is that there is no garlic in their tomato sauce. Seriously. I find most tomato sauces are far too reliant on garlic for flavor, maybe covering up the tinny flavor of canned tomatoes? I don’t know. But Dino’s family sauce recipe doesn’t contain garlic so the sweetness and light acidity of the tomatoes, the creaminess of the cheese, the richness of the bread or pasta comes through clearly. The Montanara is a house specialty and award-winning pizza is completely different from other traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas. This crust is first flash-fried in soybean oil for three seconds then the sauce and toppings are added, then baked. The resulting crust is pillowy, slightly chewy, resembling a thick Chicago-style crust, the perfect slab for that tomato sauce. Another specialty is the Timbaletto di Melanzane, an eggplant stuffed with bucatini pasta, “that” tomato sauce, mozzarella, beef sausage and chopped boiled egg. Sounds weird, I know. It’s so good. The creaminess of the eggplant and pasta, the tang of the sausage and tomatoes and the subtle richness of the boiled egg combine to make something very comforting and familial. Appropriate since it’s Dino’s grandmother’s own recipe.
The menu is compact and efficient, with 10-ish options for antipasti and salads, five pasta dishes, a handful of sides such as potatoes and rabe and only two secondi, or main dishes, one an Airline chicken dish and the other a marvelous baked branzino. And then, there’s the pizza. Partenope is in the process of becoming VPN-certified (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) giving it the designation of authentic Neapolitan pizza. Their pizza menu is essentially unlimited, as there is a long list of ingredients you can combine to make your own creation, or you go with the tried-and-true pies on the menu. There are a few desserts offered but we went straight to the Tiramisu, again, Dino’s family recipe, that my husband (an amateur Tiramisu expert) says is the best he’s eaten in the US.
Partenope has a full bar and an interesting cocktail menu that includes the obligatory Spritz (hi, Aperol!) but also three Negronis including the Negroni Colada which combines Appleton Rum, Campari, vermouth, pineapple, and coconut. I dunno about this one, y’all. The waiter assured me it’s delicious, but I didn’t try it. Instead, I ordered the Napulé which tastes like summer, with blood orange vodka with thyme, lemon, orange, and Bergotto Soda to add fizz and florality. There are plenty of beers and an impressive Italian wine list.
The small vestibule in the front belies the spaciousness of Partenope’s interior. The restaurant seats 144 in booths, free-standing tables and high counter seats in front of the pizza ovens and then again at the bar. The flooring is hard, travertine interrupted with concrete, giving the space a hard edge. The light fixtures are a little Jetson-like and austere but overall, the space is warm and unpretentious. The restaurant is near the UNT Law School and adjacent to residential buildings, office buildings and around the corner from The Majestic. I noticed a nice diversity in the guests – a few young families with babies and toddlers, lots of girls-night-out tables, younger professional-looking groups of mixed genders, cultures and races, families and empty-nester couples like us. The scene from this Italian restaurant was welcoming and comfortable. – End Scene
Scene 3: 400 Gradi
The scene in this Italian restaurant is high energy. Sunlight pours through the massive windows during the day, while the surrounding city lights twinkle and glow through them at night. Gradi, you might know by now, is the Italian word for degrees, the name meaning 400 degrees (Celsius), the temperature at which their pizzas are baked. Other 400 Gradi locations are VPN certified but the Dallas location isn’t yet but is pursuing that designation. The local partners of this Australian chain, food and beverage executive Igor Stovovic and Stream Energy’s Rob Snyder, are also high energy with an appetite for nice real estate and good design. The Dallas location is the first U.S. location for the restaurant which is uniformly successful in its home market of Australia and in Kuwait and Bahrain.
I had the pleasure of dining with Igor recently who is one of the most enthusiastic restauranteurs I’ve ever met. He has opinions and is intensively operations focused, including how I operated my pizza, but I’ll get to that later. Igor is from Milan and has spent many years ascending through the ranks of the restaurant industry associated with a company called McDonald’s, maybe you’ve heard of it. He and his wife visited friends here in Dallas about 10 years ago and loved it. In fact, he LOVES Dallas, the people, the culture and, yes, the energy. When he had an opportunity to grow 400 Gradi in the United States, there was no question – the restaurant would open here first. And why Downtown? “Look at it,” he says, “it’s beautiful.” Hey, did you hear that, New York? Igor said Dallas is beautiful.
Authenticity is the name of the game here. So much so, that the 400 Gradi team creates Neapolitan water by infusing distilled water with minerals and combines it with Italian-imported flour to make the pizza, bread and pastas served here. I’ve not been to Naples, so I don’t know if what I’ve tasted at 400 Gradi is truly authentic, but it’s excellent. The pasta is silky and firm, the bread was outstanding, especially when grilled and, the pizza, exceptional.
The menu here is more robust than at Partenope. There are more antipasti, more salads, more pastas, more Secondi. Starters such as the Capesante, a Maine scallop with lime gel, truffle powder and corn puree and Imported Italian Burrata with local heirloom tomatoes, the aforementioned chargrilled bread, basil and EVOO are works of art, booming with flavor and an air of pretention which works here. The combination of scallops with lime gel and truffle powder sounds unusual but it melds together effortlessly, the scallop was tender and perfectly cooked and a little buttery. The lime and truffle were subtle, and the corn puree just added a touch of sweetness. The burrata is composed and a but firmer than I’ve had from local purveyors, creamy and tart at once.
There are many pastas to choose from, but we had the pumpkin filled Agnolotti with butter, sage, pinenuts and amaretti (cookie) crumbs. Pumpkin, butter, sage, pasta is a quintessential autumn dish and this version is the best I’ve tasted. It’s rich, so it’s not a bad idea to share it as a starter. The main dishes shine, with plenty of meats to appease the Texans and tourists who seek it. Another unusual offering was the Costolette, or balsamic-glazed sticky ribs. These are meaty, tender and flavorful and are accompanied by perfectly sautéed spinach. branzino also appears on this menu but prepared very differently than at Partenope, this one braised with fennel, leeks and tomatoes served over a velvety-rich fish velouté.
Now, to the pizza. For some dumb reason, I started to eat my pizza with a knife and fork which I never do. Within two seconds of cutting, Igor grabbed my plate and replaced it with a fresh piece of pizza. “No, no, no! Never cut the pizza. Fold it in half and you get to taste everything better.” I was operating my pizza incorrectly and I apologize. I’ll be glad to attend remedial pizza eating classes with Igor any time.
Like Partenope, 400 Gradi has a great cocktail menu, with interesting takes on classics. The Mai It-Talian is unlike any cocktail I’ve ever had, with pistachio-flavored gin, Limoncella and lemon juice. It was sweet and refreshing and could easily serve as an after dinner drink a la Grasshopper if you desire. Many of the cocktails are fruit forward, with strawberry, blueberry, pineapple and passion fruit all added in some form or fashion to the 11 cocktails on the menu. The wine program at 400 Gradi is on display literally and figuratively, with a beautiful wine display separating the bar from the barrel vaulted-ceilinged semi-private dining room and an extensive wine list representing Italy, Australia and California.
400 Gradi is new and fresh like one of the shiny new G-Wagons you see all over town. On the evenings I went, the restaurant was packed with professionals who had clearly just evacuated their offices for happy hour and stayed for dinner. On both visits, the restaurant was still seating and serving well past 8 p.m. on weeknights which is a very positive sign for a restauranteur. Igor’s charm and energy, his eye for detail and operation excellence completely manifests in this restaurant. Everything was flawless, service, food, beverage pairing, even the strolls to our cars after our dinners there.
Igor loves Dallas, I hope we can love him back. He named the company he started to open 400 Gradi CVD – Come Volevasi Dimonstare and it means “as it turns out” or “as it’s meant to be.” It’s a hopeful yes purposeful approach to opening a restaurant in this notoriously fickle city. – End Scene
Together Megan and Dino Santonicola and Igor Stovovic have brought a new scene to Downtown dining and the area is better for it. To ensure continued investment and positive energy there, we need to support these restaurants. Go for a weekday lunch, happy hour, dinner, pre-theater or a long Saturday late lunch. There is nearby metered parking on the street and several parking garages and there is always valet (at 400 Gradi only). And then there’s Uber and Lyft to get you in and out of downtown.
1903 Main St.
IG Partenope Ristorante
2000 Ross Avenue
IG 400 Gradi USA