There are many reasons to order the snake at 61 Osteria, but the most important is that it’s not rattlesnake. No, this snake is the Serpente, a sixteen-inch-long, dramatically coiled pasta that has quickly become the must-have dish at Fort Worth’s new must-visit restaurant. 

The novel creation, with pretty serrated edges, comes filled with
ricotta, lavished with a Meyer lemon beurre blanc, and surrounded by buttery sautéed hen of the woods mushrooms. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s the handiwork of executive chef Blaine Staniford, who, with restaurateur Adam Jones, has long been at the forefront of the city’s maturing dining scene. 

For decades, Cowtown had a reputation as a place where easygoing joints such as Joe T. Garcia’s and Fred’s Texas Cafe thrived but more upscale restaurants (other than steakhouses) were a harder sell. Smart operators often camouflaged themselves with a folksy, Texas-y vibe, adopting names like Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Ellerbe Fine Foods, and Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. But over the past ten years or so, that kind of ploy has become less necessary. In 2008 Staniford and Jones opened Grace, a sleek steak-and-seafood venue that also served the likes of lamb belly dumplings with Szechuan peppercorns. Five years later they followed with the casual Little Red Wasp, known for brisket pot stickers and roasted-portobello sandwiches. Now, almost ten years after that, they’ve turned their attention to ambitious Italian fare and chosen for their venue the former First National Bank of Fort Worth building, on West Seventh, a modernist structure that opened in 1961. 

Osteria 61 Blaine Staniford and Adam Jones
The Serpente. Photograph by Brittany Conerly
Osteria 61 Blaine Staniford and Adam Jones
The dining room. Photograph by Brittany Conerly

It’s a dynamic setting, particularly at dinner, when the seven-thousand-square-foot space glows, its palette of earthy colors burnished by warm interior lighting and the last bit of sun shining through soaring glass walls. As I surveyed the room on my first visit, I noticed such niceties as strategically placed pots of white orchids, as well as features that have been missing from fine dining for a generation: Carpeting! Tablecloths! Attractive acoustical tile! (Imagine someone still caring about diners’ being able to converse.) Standing at the threshold, I felt like archaeologist Howard Carter as he peered into King Tut’s tomb in 1922. “Can you see anything?” someone called. “Yes,” he answered. “Wonderful things!”

But enough about the design. Once you sit down, you’d do well to order the Serpente, which is as seductive as it sounds. Or you could go for the tightly focused cheese plate, with mozzarella and burrata from Connecticut-based Liuzzi Cheese. Alongside are two little bowls, one with Texas olive oil and the other with a sweet, tart saba, a balsamic-like condiment made from grape must. And there’s crusty bread toasted on the wood-burning grill. Another starter, one I especially loved, is a hefty pair of whole wood-grilled blue prawns. The freshwater critters are as sweet as any shellfish I’ve ever had and come with a charred Meyer lemon half and a Mediterranean-style salsa verde, heavy on the parsley and capers. 

If you fill up on snake (or prawns), you may not want a heavy entrée, in which case consider the pan-seared black sea bass, its white flesh wonderfully moist and set off by nicely crisped skin. The two filets sit atop earthy-sweet roasted sunchokes and next to fat ricotta-and-spinach gnudi with pistachio pesto. (“We make all our pestos by hand,” Staniford says. “The flavors are so much less harsh if they’re not done in a blender.”) Serious appetites will want to consider the fine short rib, prepared sous vide, then finished on the grill. Alongside are kale, radicchio, and tender white beans in a golden broth that glimmers with tiny droplets of olive oil. (To digress a moment, if you want a nice wine to go with that entrée, it’s easy to find something on the globe-spanning list of more than two hundred bottles. About half of the offerings are from Italy, with a concentration on the Piedmont, Sicily, Tuscany, and Veneto regions.) 

Osteria 61 Blaine Staniford and Adam Jones
Adam Jones and Blaine Staniford.Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Lunch at 61 Osteria has an easy feel. For one thing, the room is quieter, with tables of businesspeople and a birthday celebration or two. At that time of day, sunshine floods the space, illuminating at one end a wall of spectacular Indian marble shot through with veins of green and burgundy and at the other an expansive three-panel collage of butterflies by Fort Worth artist Joey Lancaster. From the ceiling hangs a lighting installation measuring forty square feet that looks as if it’s made from sheets of near-gossamer chain mail. They are fashioned into 24 panels that hang in precise “cubes” and shimmer ever so subtly when touched by a breath of air.

Those who might be fixated on Italy’s legendary dry-cured hams—my hand is raised here—will find a concise tasting of prosciutto di Parma, one selection aged for 12 months and the other for 24. Those who can’t get enough Italian cheese can indulge in arancini. In many places these treats are rice balls with cheese. Here they’re more like cheese balls with rice. Each perfectly breaded and fried nibble of fontina and Carnaroli rice holds together just long enough for you to dip it in one of the accompanying sauces—a parsley-rich salsa verde and a sweet tomato—and pop it in your mouth. 

As you would expect at lunchtime, the menu also includes sandwiches and salads, but a light option I very much enjoyed was the peasant-style Tuscan soup, sided by grilled sourdough. The broth is a long-simmered medley of white beans, fennel-laced Italian sausage, and bracing bits of dark green kale. From the list of main courses, I quite liked my meaty, medium-rare Pacific swordfish, even though its seasoning was a bit timid, designed perhaps for those who prefer restrained rather than rowdy flavors. The sides were semipureed eggplant and a well-behaved puttanesca sauce set off by Castelvetrano olives. My friend was a big fan of her confited and fried chicken from Windy Meadows Family Farm, in Campbell. I agreed with her about the spunky seasoning of oregano and rosemary, but I found the leg and thigh dry overall. 

Osteria 61 Blaine Staniford and Adam Jones
The Texas Olive Oil Cake, with chestnut honey mascarpone, candied citrus, and a crispy farro crumble. Photograph by Brittany Conerly
Osteria 61 Blaine Staniford and Adam Jones
Bartender Kenneth Cyr making a Sexy Italian cocktail, with prosecco and limoncello sorbet. Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Since it was still early and neither of us was worried about overdoing caffeine, for dessert we ordered the tiramisu. The first bite proved that Staniford is serious about coffee. He soaks the ladyfingers, he told me, in “a mix of espresso, cold brew, and Mr Black” (an Australian vodka-and-coffee liqueur). He then crafts the other layers from mascarpone and whipped cream and finishes the whole thing with an enthusiastic dusting of cocoa powder. The resulting supersized confection is so milky and moist that it could qualify as the tres leches of Italy. 

On the way out, I turned and took a long look at the splendid room and thought about how sophisticated the Fort Worth dining scene had become over the last two decades. Restaurateurs and chefs like Jon Bonnell, Tim Love, and Molly McCook gave it crucial momentum early on. Staniford and Jones have quickened the pace. I think we can all agree that a place that has museums of national caliber should have restaurants to match.

61 Osteria
500 W. 7th, Fort Worth
L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. B Sat & Sun.
Opened February 2, 2023

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Fort Worth Dining Is Ready for the Big Time.” Subscribe today.