FINDING A SUPERB, LIKE-THEY-make-it-in-the-old-country kind of Italian restaurant in Dallas is sort of like making a killing at the tables in Las Vegas: difficult, but not impossible. It’s not that Dallas lacks for ristorantes; the telephone company’s Yellow Pages, for example, lists some 15 under the heading Italian restaurants, but that list is far from inclusive. No, the problem is more with quality than quantity. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few good restaurants, ranging from inexpensive to very, very costly.
Romano’s Spaghetti Inn is a small almost hole-in-the-wall place at 4117 Lomo Alto near Lemmon Ave. Unimposing and inexpensive (even if their prices did just go up), it is owned by Michael Valerin, an Italian who lived in Tuscany before arriving in the United States in 1961.
Romano’s is not Mr. Valerin’s first restaurant. His first attempt was in New York City, and it featured food like they cooked in Tuscany. Only nobody was interested. Americans, Mr. Valerin discovered, prefer the American version of Italian cooking.
So when he arrived in Dallas (by way of a stretch in the United States Army at Fort Hood), he was convinced he had to cook American. Even now, when more continental types who’ve tasted what Italy has to offer suggest he return to his Tuscany style, he refuses. There just isn’t a big enough market, he insists.
But Michael Valerin’s American version is still a cut above what most Italian restaurants in Dallas offer. His spaghetti, for example, comes closer to being al dente than anyplace else I’ve found, and his spaghetti sauce—cooked for some 15 to 20 hours—lacks the sweetness unfortunately common to Dallas’s Italian food.
Romano’s menu is limited, and the orders are placed at the counter (no waiters). There is the typical array of pizzas; a selection of sandwiches including a spicy Italian beef; and a concoction of Mr. Valerin’s own imagination called Romano’s Special, a large, round, open-face sandwich composed of Italian bread, ground meat, tomato sauce and cheese, a delicious invention which comes closer to being a true Italian pizza than what the pizza places normally offer; and the usual line of spaghetti-ravioli-lasagna-manicotti.
The most endearing thing about Romano’s may be the prices. Three years ago, when Michael Valerin opened Romano’s, a small plate of spaghetti went for 90 cents; today, spaghetti with butter sauce (perhaps the true test of an Italian restaurant) is $1.25 for a small plate. But that’s cheap compared to nearly everyone else’s prices. Pizza starts at $1.65 and goes on up to $3.00. Sandwiches range from $1.00 to $1.25, but they’re large and satisfying. The most expensive item on the menu is lasagna at $2.50, but that comes with a do-it-yourself salad of crisp greens and Mr. Valerin’s own salad dressing, and garlic bread. Romano’s also serves beer and an adequate, but nothing special, wine.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 A.M. to 9:30 P.M.; Friday and Saturday, to 10:30 P.M.; closed Sundays. Telephone: 526-9099. Food also can be purchased to take out.
Pietro’s Italian Restaurant, a moderately priced establishment, has a big reputation in Dallas and is nearly always overflowing.
But my first trip to Pietro’s was disasterous. A year or two ago, I convinced four other people that we should try Pietro’s, then at its old location on Greenville Ave. All of us ordered manicotti, and when it arrived, it was burned and tasteless. I vowed I would never return.
But I did return, and the following experiences were anything but bad.
By this time, Pietro’s had moved to a new building at 5722 Richmond off Greenville. The building looks, at first glance, like a remodeled small apartment building. Instead, it’s a specially designed place which enables the family to live, Italian style, over the restaurant.
Pietro Eustachio owns Pietro’s and runs it with the help of a large supply of relatives. Nobody but family cooks at Pietro’s (once advertised as a “Momma-in-a-Kitchen” kind of place), and the food shows it.
A competitor called Pietro’s the best, authentic Sicilian food in town (all the Eustachio brothers were born and raised in Italy). But Pietro’s also serves some Northern Italian dishes, Its veal scallopine ($4.75) is great; the shrimp marinara ($4.25) has a fantastic sauce; the Italian sausage ($4.00) is good; the spaghetti with butter sauce ($2.25) is just a shade under Romano’s; the veal parmigiana is also good, but not special; and the veal in lemon sauce has an interesting, almost haunting quality about it.
The veal dishes come with salad and spaghetti, the spaghetti being just a tad overcooked. Two pieces of garlic bread cost an additional 40 cents. And, although it may be a small point, when paying $4.00 to $5.00 for dinner, I expect butter, not the margarine Pietro’s serves.
The dress for Pietro’s is casual, but go early; the lines can sometimes be long. The decor is Italian Standard—Italian travel posters, wine bottle labels, lattice work with plastic grapes, and red and white tablecloths—but pleasant.
Hours: 5 to 10:30 P.M., weekdays; to 11:30 on Friday and Saturday; closed Monday. Telephone: 824-9403.
Mario’s Restaurant, 135 Turtle Creek Village, is everything Romano’s and Pietro’s aren’t: expensive, elegant, almost intimidating. But despite the name, Mario’s isn’t really Italian. It’s cuisine is primarily continental with some Northern Italian food thrown in.
Mario’s started off, long about 1945, being a lot more Italian. Mario Vaccaro, a New York attorney (and father of actress Brenda Vaccaro) who had always been interested in cooking, came to Texas and opened his first restaurant in South Dallas. With each move around town, the menu became less Italian and more continental. One location was Ross Ave. and Central Expressway; another was at Lemmon Ave. and Wycliff.
Mario Vaccaro died a few days after the restaurant moved to Lemmon Ave. For the next few years, his wife Christine, ran Mario’s but a few years ago, she turned to a nephew, Phil Vaccaro, for help.
(Phil Vaccaro, incidentally, owns three other “good” restaurants in Dallas: Old Warsaw, Arthur’s, and Arthur’s West. And there was a time when Mario’s, Old Warsaw, and Arthur’s were rated as The Big Three in Dallas eating. Arthur’s has since slipped from the Holiday Magazine guide to restaurants.)
The current Mario’s location in Turtle Creek Shopping Center is richly decorated: red and black walls, gold framed mirrors, tall, slender, single candles on each table. And the service is superb.
But the food, well, the food is something else. The veal with scampi (made with lobster tails rather than shrimp) must be one of Italy’s finest dishes. The sauce for the scampi is tremendous. (So good in fact, Charles Oddo, Mario’s comptroller, assures me he sops his bread in it. And the waiter says the dish it’s served in always comes back clean.)
Another veal dish, a combination of veal, cheese, and ham, is a subtle blend of flavors. Delicious.
Mario’s Italian dishes are primarily veal and pasta, with one or two chicken entrees, and they are all the work, strangely enough, of Mario’s French chef. Mario’s prices are not cheap. The pasta begins at $5.00 for spaghetti and goes on up to $8.50 for the veal with scampi. (The continental can go a little higher.) Two people, ordering drinks and wine, can probably get out for around $30, tip included. Dress should be equally expensive.
Reservations are a must for Mario’s. I was there one cold, very rainy Wednesday night, the kind of night no one goes out on, but Mario’s was not only full, it had people stacked up waiting.
Hours: 6:00 to 11:00 P.M., seven nights a week. Telephone: 521-1135.