In Dallas, great Italian restaurants are rare as carpaccio. There is Lucia, which just earned four stars in its first update review since it opened in 2011. And there is Nonna, Julian Barsotti's Highland Park trattoria, which also earned four stars in an update review, just last fall. Barsotti's more casual place, Carbone's Fine Food and Wine, continues to delight, and I always enjoy an evening at Zio Cecio, Francesco Farris' cozy place on Lovers Lane.
After that, the brain-racking begins.
It's too early to say whether Barsotti's new restaurant, Sprezza, will be great. But with the 35-year-old chef's track rating, passion and commitment to excellence, it certainly shows early promise.
Especially as the ambience is so different than what you find at tiny-exclusive Lucia, buzzy-intimate Nonna, or even Carbone's or Zio Cecio.
Breezy, lovely and open-feeling, with blond woods, tall windows and a gentle touch, the restaurant – in a just-built freestanding craftsman house on Maple Avenue – has an easy, casual lightness and elegance, like a breath of Roman spring. Less than a week after it opened, it already felt like a relaxed gathering place. The place has plenty of elbow room, which is part of why it feels so different.
You can sidle up to the bar and sip a Montenegro Spritz – prosecco duded up with amaro on a giant ice cube. Or a Negroni Bianco – with tequila, white vermouth, Suze and Strega.
Then amble to a table, and start nibbling.
Forno Campo de' Fiori, a pizzeria in one of Rome's most famous markets, was Barsotti's inspiration for the tavern, and his menu consists almost entirely of antipasti and spuntini (bar snacks), pastas handmade and extruded in-house and Roman-style pizza al taglia – which is sort of brilliant. Who needs main courses in an Italian restaurant?
My friends and I began with an unusual salad of mussels out of their shells dressed up with mint, red onion, fresh garbanzos and croutons, and a fritto misto. It was tough to choose, as everything looked so enticing.
Who could say no to the crostini del giorno, topped with blue crabmeat and fava beans dressed in a Meyer lemon aioli? Nor could we resist ordering something called "quinto quarto" – a Roman expression that means "the fifth quarter," referring to offal. This was beef tongue done in the style of vitello tonnato, with lightly pickled spicy giardiniera vegetables. All designed to share, and all lovely with a surprisingly lush Frascati (2013 Pietra Porzia Regillo) that can be had by the glass or bottle.
Pasta-wise, we chose one from the "tradizione" column: spaghetti alla carbonara. And one from the "stagioni" (seasons) column: fusilli with sausage, ramps and escarole. Naturally, we had to try the pizza al taglio. Served on a wooden board, it was shaped like a snowshoe, with a nicely chewy-crisp mid-weight crust. Ours was topped with fontina, ricotta, ramps, asparagus and rosemary.
There was one main course on offer: lamb done in tender, long-roasted porchetta style, set on yogurt sauce and topped with shaved asparagus and favas, very springy.
The spring through-line continued into dessert, with marizotti, sweet little Roman buns. Here it meant a single marizotto, split open and filled, shortcake-style, with strawberries, rhubarb and whipped cream.
Barsotti keeps the pricing simple: $11 each for spuntini; $14 for antipasti; $17 for tradizione pastas; $19 for stagioni pastas; $15 for the pizzas; $9 for the dolci (desserts). A half-dozen daily specials are $13 to $25.
It's casual fare (dinner only, closed Sunday) that would feel just as at home eaten at the bar or the counter with a kitchen view. The name for the restaurant comes from sprezzatura, which means studied carelessness that belies dedicated seriousness. And that feels exactly right.