Catch a craving for good, old-fashioned red-sauce Italian, and visions of Santa Barbara uni and smoked duck rillettes quickly disappear in a pouf of pulverized cabrito vapor.
It was that red-sauce yen that made this ever-optimistic spaghetti hound hopeful about the rebirth of Patrizio — the 26-year-old Highland Park Village institution — in Uptown in May.
Evidently, satisfying the primal craving was Jack Knox’s idea when he opened Patrizio in 1989 — though goat cheese and blue corn meal were the trendy ingredients he was reacting against with his “old-fashioned New York Italian.” The restaurant, which earned a lukewarm review by then-restaurant critic Waltrina Stovall (the food, she wrote, “has a case of the blahs”), was by all accounts wildly popular, and Knox opened a second location, in Plano, five years later. In 2006, he sold his interest in both to restaurateur Edward C. Bailey, who has since opened another two locations, in Highland Village and Fairview.
If the cooking at the original didn’t impress much at the start, by the time I dined there in 2012 it was pretty bleak; the experience inspired a critic’s notebook column about the sorry state of dining in the Park Cities Bubble. “The arugula’s wilted,” I complained of Patrizio, “the carpaccio’s unseasoned, the lasagna’s fit for a truck stop.” The service was regrettable. The place was packed.
In February, Bailey closed the location; Highland Park Village owner Ray Washburne told The Dallas Morning News he needed a “new face” in the space.
The new Patrizio inhabits the McKinney Avenue space that started life as Private Social, morphed into P/S, then reconcepted as Barter, which closed in January.
I’m happy to report that in its new digs, the arugula is fresh and the lasagna’s pretty good — if maybe a little salty.
It’s hard to tell exactly what the designer was aiming for in the dining room, which is nicely opened up and airy. A floor-to-ceiling wine rack rises near a row of free-floating tufted black leather booths in the center of the room; an expanse of more black tufted leather on one whitewashed brick wall looks like a padded cell for sado-masochists — kind of kooky next to a Renaissance-style painting of a pair of Italian gentlemen in ruff collars. (Bailey brought some paintings from the original location; others are from his personal collection.)
In any case, two dinners there were definitely more pleasant than my sole experience at the original. I was happy to dive into one of the better chopped salads in town — a giant one composed of romaine, small cubes of provolone, salami and smoked ham, chopped pepperoncini, chickpeas and quartered cherry tomatoes, all tossed in a red wine vinaigrette and showered with grated Parm.
A couple of other starters were likable, too, such as a small skillet of garlicky shrimp and a Caprese salad that featured wedges of ripe-enough tomatoes, though overzealous use of the balsamic reduction squeeze bottle did no favor for the lovely milky flavor of its buffalo mozzarella.
Mozzarella Bar items tended to underwhelm: lackluster marinated olives; prosciutto-wrapped roasted asparagus spears smothered in lemon mayonnaise and grated Parm; a skillet full of oily, sweet Peppadew and cherry peppers filled with melted smoked provolone and prosciutto.
So did a couple of pizzas. The toppings were fine — pepperoni, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and mozzarella on one; good fennel sausage, roasted onions and peppers, leeks, mozzarella and toasted pine nuts on another. But the thick crusts, though nicely charred in a wood-burning oven, were pallid in flavor and didn’t know what they wanted to be — they were too thick and not crisp enough to be New York-style, too heavy to be Neapolitan-style.
Among the pastas, rigatoni (somewhat gummy) were bathed in a respectable bolognese; linguini neri (dyed black with squid ink) was overshadowed by its crown of mussels — less sweet and tender than Prince Edward Island mussels usually are — joined by cherry tomatoes and grated Parm that didn’t enhance the seafood. Fettucine “pappagano,” tossed with cubes of fried pancetta, tomato and basil in a light Parmesan cream sauce, was much better.
There are nightly specials, too; I particularly liked Thursday’s lamb spezzatino, a soulful Sicilian-style lamb ragu. Here, garnished with mint gremolata that pulled the flavors together deliciously, it topped a bowl of loose polenta. Weirdly, a few leaden ricotta gnocchi made it into the mix; they seemed to have escaped from a different (and lesser) dish.
The entree selection is perplexing, neither modern nor traditional Italian, nor traditional Italian-American. “Sicilian salmon” with caponata and pistachio pesto, and cauliflower Milanese — with Romesco sauce, “super greens” and golden raisin-mint gremolata — both sounded unappetizing. Instead my friend went for flounder Milanese: decent if somewhat oily fried fish in a light lemon-caper sauce, topped with an arugula salad dotted with cherry tomatoes — enough ideas for three different dishes. That was worlds better than my plate: a breaded, fried, sauce-covered and melted-cheese-laden veal chop that looked like cudgel parmigiana and didn’t eat much better. Its bone handle rested on gummy spaghetti marinara. At $32.96, it’s the second-most- expensive dish on the menu (I didn’t try the $38.98 prime filet with slow-roasted onions, aged balsamic vinegar and tomato jam). Wondering what’s with the wacky prices? Chef Ryan Carbery says that Knox, whom he has gotten to know over the past few years, described it to him as a way “to be different.”
For dessert, there’s standard-issue tiramisu, forgettable Italian cream cake with strawberries, second-rate biscotti and the like. Twin pear-almond cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar were lovely, though.
The service is earnest, if clunky (water was poured into the soda of my teenage guest one night, then replaced, three times). And the vintageless wine list, big on heavy California reds and undistinguished Italian whites, is one of the sorriest I’ve seen anywhere. I do like the Bieler Père et Fils rosé, but it’s not worth $39.08 per bottle (I regularly pick it up for less than $12 at the supermarket). The most promising selection on a separate list of six “featured” reds was a 2011 De Grazia Seghesio Barolo that no one in the dining room could tell us anything about, for $91. We passed, going instead for a $38.11 baby Amarone that came to the table warm. The ice bucket we requested didn’t do the trick (it helps to add water), so we resorted to adding ice cubes — lots of them.
Craving red-sauce Italian? You could do worse than Patrizio. But you could also do better.
Patrizio (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (appetizers, soups and salads $5.64 to $22.64; pizzas $12.94 to $17.92; pastas and main courses $12.96 to $38.98; desserts $4.26 to $8.94)
Service: Earnest, if clunky. Wine service needs serious work.
Ambience: Renaissance Italy with an S&M backbeat
Noise level: Normal conversation was never difficult.
Location: 3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-522-7878; patrizios.net
Hours: Sunday-Monday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. Italian wine lovers will find little to cheer about on either the odd, one-page, vintageless overpriced wine list or the brief list of higher-priced featured reds.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor