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When Not in Rome

Julian Barsotti makes it look easy, but his expertise is clearly on display at this modern Italian taverna.

By July 2016Comments

Photograph by Kelsey Foster Wilson

Julian Barsotti wasn’t born in Italy, but he got there as soon as he could. Culinarily speaking, that is. “I’ve always had a huge passion for Italian food,” says the 35-year-old Dallas chef and restaurateur. “My great-grandparents were from Italy. My mom’s side of the family had an Italian restaurant in New York, and later in New Jersey. And my dad’s family always cooked and ate Italian, for sure.” No one twisted Barsotti’s arm to go into the food business. He could just as easily have become, say, a farmer or a fighter pilot or a ferret trainer. But his heart was in Italy from the time he was a small child. In 2007 he opened his first restaurant, the refined Nonna. In 2012 he followed up with a stripped-down Italian cafe and market named Carbone’s, after his great-grandfather’s place. His third restaurant, Sprezza, bridges the gap between elegant and easy. It’s inspired by Rome’s osterias, trattorias, and street vendors, offering traditional dishes that he has made accessible to the Dallas audience he knows so well. It’s his most personal effort yet.

Because Uber was so efficient, I showed up half an hour early the first night I ate at Sprezza. Far from being a problem, it allowed some time for a little pick-me-up at the bar while I waited for my friends. The lineup of Italian-inspired cocktails is a concise half dozen. Some are sweet (the Rossini: strawberry puree, prosecco), some are not (the negroni bianco: tequila, Strega). But what really appealed was a glass from the all–Southern Italian wine list, which, if not unique in Dallas, is certainly uncommon. All the appetizers on the menu—which is executed on a day-to-day basis by co-chefs Ryan Ferguson and Scott Lewis—sounded great, so I asked the waiter to describe one, then another, and then another. Ten minutes later he’d run through almost a third of the menu. (If he was ready to strangle me when I finally chose the first thing he’d mentioned, he didn’t let on.) Baby artichokes alla giudia is one of those dishes we all know—inevitably a riot of lemon juice and olive oil. Well, not here. These little morsels had been braised in a champagne vinaigrette and then fried in plain vegetable oil. Surprise, surprise, they actually tasted like artichokes! This is going to be interesting, I thought.

pats-pick-sprezza-interior

Photograph by Kelsey Foster Wilson

When my friends arrived, we moved a few feet over to a table in a long, narrow section of the dining room, contemporary but not stark, with blond-wood accents and soft gray upholstery. In short order, the table was covered in small plates. Of them, we liked the “smashed” cucumber salad best, a bowl of cubed yellow squash, cukes, Fresno chiles, and milky house-made mozzarella (the smashing comes in when the prep cooks smack the components a few times with a rolling pin to speed absorption of the red-wine vinaigrette). After a couple of bites of the pleasant if lackluster blue crab–topped crostini, I considered asking for a lemon wedge, although I did like its mashed fava bean spread (which reminded me of green hummus).

Knowing we had to leave room for meaty courses, we vowed to go easy on the pasta and pizza. Far crisper than its droopy Neapolitan cousin, our Roman pie was rectangular and lightly glazed with mozzarella under a sprinkle of mild caciocavallo cheese and a tangle of deeply caramelized onion. Stinting proved impossible with the ravioli, handkerchief-thin pasta packets fat with ricotta and snuggled up to a pork-and-beef tomato ragù. Somehow miraculously invigorated, we plowed through both the hunky, pepper-crusted braised wagyu shortrib and the fantastic lamb meatballs. The latter, light and plumped up with sweet currants and pine nuts, came on a tart dill-yogurt sauce that had subtle undertones of the Middle East.

The very next night, I walked in to have a second go at the menu, and who should be assigned to the table but our long-suffering waiter from the night before. “Would you like me to go over the menu again?” he asked, a frozen smile never leaving his face. Seafood seemed like the ticket that evening, but first my friend and I felt compelled to have the pesto-dabbed supplì al telefono. Having chewed my way through plenty of these crusty Italian rice balls, I honestly didn’t expect much. But I hadn’t counted on perfectly timed frying. And I was wowed by the clever chopped-spaghetti preparation that Barsotti later told me he had picked up in Rome. Random strings of molten mozzarella filling even resembled the telephone cord for which the dish is (weirdly) named.

Whenever I see soft-shell crab on a menu I order it, and I was glad we tried this super-fresh one, even though the accompanying saffron aioli had melted into an undistinguished puddle. But good as it was, it was completely eclipsed by a daily special, spectacular cream-poached lobster claw and tail meat. Lavished with a silky emulsion of lobster stock and butter, it was simply one of the best seafood dishes I’ve had in ages. Not that they asked, but I think they should make the lobster a staple and ditch its clunky potato sidekick.

Of the two desserts we managed to wedge in, I would definitely give the nod to the chocolate-and-date pudding with pistachio gelato, which had a hedonistic edge, over the tiramisu, which was beautifully presented but otherwise its usual awfully sweet, middle-of-the-road self.

Is it ever possible to do a so-called authentic restaurant outside of its home country, I asked Barsotti when I called to chat a few days later. “Never,” he said. “And I wouldn’t try.” The produce isn’t the same, he explained. The pasta flour isn’t the same. The seafood and meat aren’t the same. “I can’t replicate Roman food in Texas,” he said. But what he can do is draw on something that is shared between the two places: “Roman food is comfort food. It’s rustic, it’s spicy, it’s aggressive.” Luckily, all those adjectives also describe the way Texans like to eat. “I went to Rome three times for this restaurant,” he said. “I can’t copy what I ate, but I can draw on my food memories and make something that is true to their spirit. So far, I think it’s working pretty well.” So do I.

4010 Maple Ave, Dallas (972-807-9388). D Mon–Sat. $$–$$$
Opened: April 28, 2016

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