Want to know how the sausage is made? Slide into a seat at Macellaio’s L-shaped counter and ask. The servers are fluent in all manner of Italian-style sausages and cured meats, and they are itching to tell you about the day’s offerings, all made in-house. If your timing is right, you might get to ask the chief sausage geek himself, chef and co-owner David Uygur. He was probably at work in the open kitchen earlier in the day, happily up to his elbows in herbs and spices, slicing hunks of pork, rinsing sausage casings, feeding the meat grinder, and hanging the plump results in the spacious charcuterie fridge. (I happened to be nearby one evening as the refrigerator door was opened, and I was momentarily transfixed by a subtly spicy, meaty aroma—black pepper and rosemary, garlic and cumin—wafting through the air.)
Macellaio—pronounced “Ma-che-lie-oh” and meaning “butcher” in Italian—opened in June in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District, just down the street from its seven-year-old sibling, Italian restaurant Lucia. Both places are owned by David and his wife, Jennifer, who is also the restaurants’ sommelier and a certified Italian Wine Professional. Almost since the day the couple started tiny Lucia, they seriously needed to open another place. And David especially wanted a venue where he could delve into the craft he had begun to dabble in when he ran the kitchen at Lola, from 2006 to 2009. True, the couple could have just done what many restaurants do—import Old World sausages and hams and perhaps cure some meats on-site. But David wasn’t into replicating what you can get at any number of places. And besides, they also wanted to translate Mediterranean classics for the Texas palate.
Tall and many-windowed, Macellaio has the same number of tables as Lucia but considerably more seating at the counter and on the patio, which makes it a pleasant spot to meet for a cocktail (maybe the Por Signore, featuring house orange bitters, apple brandy, and much, much more). The restaurant’s design is relaxed and semi-industrial, with concrete floors, sleek brown leather chairs at the bar, and an old-fashioned butcher-shop scale at the host stand. The menu understandably gives Italy most of the attention, but Spain and France are not far behind.
On the first of two visits with friends, it took a couple of tries before we hit pay dirt. The light pickled-vegetable starter known as giardiniera (not unlike Mexico’s escabeche) sounded spunky and fun but was a bit dull (despite its fennel and good olive oil). Ditto the pallotte in tomato sauce (like meatballs, but made with bread and a couple of cheeses). Things picked up with the tart green olive and parsley salad with sweet golden raisins and silvery brined Portuguese sardines. Then—then—we ordered the thick, toasty crostini lavished with billows of rosy chicken-liver-and-brandy mousse, and it was like the sun had come out on a cloudy day. And the honey-drizzled roasted figs alongside—heaven.
Given Macellaio’s meat-centricity, it’s not surprising that the kitchen, under the direction of chef de cuisine Anthony Bombaci, excels with cooked animal protein as well as cured. Like what? Like the medium-rare lamb sirloin, which comes sided with a fabulously pungent cilantro-mint-dill paste with the unpoetic name of zhug (it’s Yemeni but reminds me of an Italian salsa verde). Another triumph is the pork short rib; to get it, you order the Spanish stew called fabada, which is also rife with big, blowsy white lima beans, piquant slices of chistorra (chorizo’s fattier cousin), and a fantastic spreadable blood sausage mellowed with oats and rice.
Sated, we still managed to try two desserts. One was a pleasant enough but hardly memorable version of the French pastry bostock, described as a cross between an almond croissant and a brioche, which to me came off more like a torte. The other was an irresistible slice of toasted brioche spread with milk-chocolate ganache and punched up with a smidge of sea salt and olive oil, said to be a beloved after-school snack of Spanish children. Lucky kids.
Two nights later, I was back to try the results of David’s charcuterie compulsion. A necessary prelude to that was, of course, a bread board, three marvelous house-made selections, which on this visit consisted of olive oil–drizzled nigella-seed focaccia and fat slices from loaves of rustic caraway sourdough and a sweet caramelized-shiitake country bread—luscious, stretchy, and assertively crusted. Our appetites almost ruined, we finally got down to business. The $29 chef’s choice of five salumi, from the day’s offering of seventeen, got us coppa (deep red, with a scandalous fat layer embracing piquant green peppercorns) and capicola (mildly brined and smoked pink Berkshire pork collar). The third of the selections was mortadella (the fine-textured salume studded with pistachios), and the fourth was the ever-popular fennel seed–enriched finocchiona. If there was one I wasn’t crazy about, it was the wagyu-beef-shank terrine, which was oddly crumbly and timid, despite being sprinkled with freshly grated horseradish. We were more taken with a gratis sample our watchful waiter slid across the counter: mica (a tidy, firm sausage coated in toasted whole-wheat flour).
Most people would go on to order entrées at this point. We barely had room for a couple of sides. As Southerners, we were curious to see what in the world a Mediterranean kitchen would do with slow-roasted Anson Mills heirloom grits. Answer: it turned them into a sort of glorious gourmet mush tricked out with wild mushrooms, a poached egg, and a cheesy-peppery broth. But we got the biggest kick out of Macellaio’s version of the crazy southern French classic aligot. As we grabbed our phones to record the spectacle, David held a saucepan high in the air and poured cascade upon cascade of creamy, molten Gruyère, mixed with large white beans instead of the traditional potatoes, onto a plateful of dainty, lightly pickled creamer peas. Said one friend as he scooped up the last bite: “Kind of like a French version of Texas caviar topped with queso.”
We all laughed, but that perfectly summed up what I liked so much about Macellaio. They know the “right” way to do things but exercise the option of doing it their way. In one sense, that could be looked at as heresy, as thumbing one’s nose at tradition. In another, it’s playing with tradition and giving it a new life. Because, in the end, there’s no such thing as the one proper way to do anything. How boring would it be if there were just one way to do aligot or queso or Texas caviar?
287 N. Bishop Ave., Dallas
Opened June 5, 2018